Back to School: The Prepared Environment

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year …”

If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.

Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever.  I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”

Back to School that is.

Ahhh, back to school.  A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike.  Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th.  Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.

We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.

This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares.  These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc.  In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!

Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year.  Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:

Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,

Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,

Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,

Even the air was redolent with exuberance —  full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.

This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:

The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,

The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,

The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,

The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.

That classroom was waiting for you.  Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.

It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:

“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school?  I’m the VP of our union.  Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts.  Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”

“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.

“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.

I have always been a fiercely proud union member.  I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career.  But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.

To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state.  I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with.  I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.

What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.

I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared.  A classroom where materials are still in boxes.  A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.

A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.

Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.

Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this.  Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways.  Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.

There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits.  A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom.[1]  Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom.[2]  This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.

The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.[3]

Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low.  Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space.  Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.[4]

Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier.  The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.

Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.

And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.

Is this fair?  No, of course not.  But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us.  Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom.  Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours.  Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.

As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space:  5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design.  It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.

The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.

As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”

I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space.  Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”[5]

Consider your classroom.  Which corner do you want to start with?

Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went.  Is there an area in your room that felt congested?  Or cluttered?  A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends?  Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.

Begin with one of these spaces.

Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options.  If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.

There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional.  Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.

(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)

A place for everything and everything in its place

If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.

A student supply center. This teacher has two sets of these –each one assigned for use by 4 tables of students.

 

A simple way to provide easy access to colored pencils. A student job can be ensuring correct placement of pencils at the end of each day.

 

Materials to support classroom procedures

If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.

A structure for documenting, problem-solving, and holding students accountable for being tardy to class.

 

Classroom jobs support students in being responsible for care of the environment. Clear routines and procedures are essential for this to function well.

 

Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion

If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.

A beautifully set morning meeting table includes all necessary supplies.

 

Clearly defined morning meeting leadership roles with individual clipboards for ease of use.

 

Nontraditional student work areas

If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.

The creation of beautiful reading nooks emphasizes the joy that can be found in reading for pleasure.

 

Here is a different type of reading corner. In both photos, notice the lighting elements.

 

Many students like the option of working on the floor as it allows them greater movement and more choices of position.

 

A standard table can easily be converted to a floor work space by removing a portion of the legs.

 

Students may discover work spaces that you had never even considered!

 

There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning.  However, to do so takes significant time.  Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.

So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom.  Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year.  Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space.  (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)

But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure.  Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead.  Quite frankly, so are most teachers.  It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.

Your students are worth it.  So are you.

 

[1] Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Carter, Dwight, Gary Sebach, and Mark White.What’s In Your Space?Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2016.

 

Creating Change: Yes, We Can!

An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.

 My students made that happen, and they did so much more.

As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes.  Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.

But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …

And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.

Read more

7 Gateways: The Hunger for Joy and Delight

originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17

by Krista Taylor

Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.

Read more

What is this “Montessori Thing” and Secondary Montessori

*This post was originally published as two separate posts in January of 2016.  Because both posts address the origins and philosophy of Montessori practice, we wanted to republish them together.

 Anyone connected to education today has heard the following espoused as best practices:

  • Project-Based Learning
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Social-Emotional Learning
  • Use of Manipulatives and Hands-On Activities
  • Real-World Experiences
  • Rigor
  • High Expectations

These are cutting-age, modern instructional practices, right?

Wrong.

Maria Montessori first began developing and implementing these techniques in the early 20th century.

Maria Montessori

Read more

How Do You Measure a Year?

By Krista Taylor

It happens every year, so one would think I would be used to it by now.  The school-year seems to move along, as slow as molasses, at times feeling somewhat interminable. And then, suddenly, it’s over. This catches me entirely off-guard.  And I’m not ready.

The curriculum has been taught, the tests have been administered, the paperwork is complete, the culminating projects are finished, and yet I am still not ready.

I’m not ready to let them go.  I’m not ready to say good-bye.

I am not ready to have my 8th graders move on to high school. And even though my 7th graders will return to me next year, I’m not ready to spend 12 weeks apart from them.

I know that sounds ridiculous.  It probably is ridiculous. But I don’t transition well.  Every year it takes me a week or longer after the end of the school year to complete the check-out process that somehow every other teacher manages to get done by the last day.  But I’m not ready.

However, this year, exactly one week before the end of the year, I looked around the circle at the faces of my students during morning meeting, and I suddenly realized that whether or not I was ready, my students were.

The seventh graders, who had entered our building in the fall looking for all the world like little lost lambs, were ready to assume the mantle of leadership.

And the eighth graders had become so strong, self-assured, and independent that they were ready to tackle the new demands and challenges of high school.

How had this leadership emerged?  It felt abrupt when I suddenly saw it staring back at me in black and white during that morning meeting, but I knew that it wasn’t.  I knew that their leadership had been cultivated and nurtured over time and through great dedication and diligence.  But how?  What exactly were the critical components that allowed that transformation to happen?

As I tend to do, when I saw them with new eyes that morning, I acknowledged it.  I told my 7th graders that I had just realized that they were ready – ready to fill the 8th graders’ shoes, ready to lead our community next year.  And I asked them how they had learned to do this.  Their response did not surprise me, but it did delight me.  They said, “The eighth graders taught us.”

And, of course, that is how it had happened.  This is peer transmission of culture, and it is a powerful thing.

Being social and engaging in peer relationships is the primary motivating force of the adolescent.  As a result, they can teach each other far more powerfully than any lesson presented by an adult.  This is why peer pressure is such a powerful phenomenon.

Teen-agers desperately want to fit in, to belong.  They crave this social inclusion, and while adults often fear its power to lead children astray, peer pressure can be positively channeled to guide students toward valorization as well.

“Teens join peer groups in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their families and grow more independent … When most people think of the phrase ‘peer pressure,’ images of underage teens participating in destructive behavior spring to mind. But most people overlook positive examples of peer pressure, including situations where friends push teens to grow in beneficial ways.”[1]

Students can reach each other more deeply than any adult ever could.  Who better to teach them how to be leaders than their peers?  This is the rich benefit of multi-age grouping in a classroom.  Older students model expectations for younger students, and this results in powerful learning.

Multi-age groupings, like those seen in Montessori classrooms among others, readily allow the transmission of classroom culture to occur through peer relationships.  And my students’ recognition of this was what I found so remarkable on that day when I looked around morning meeting and suddenly recognized their transformation.

Multi-age classrooms are a fundamental component of the Montessori model, but this philosophy is beginning to reach traditional education as well.  A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, “Multiage education … puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.”[2]

This is exactly how it happens.

This mentoring, leadership, and collaboration is very intentionally constructed in the Montessori middle school classroom.  At the beginning of the year, the eighth graders are asked to take on all the leadership roles.  They are expected to model what positive leadership looks like in our classrooms.  We overtly identify and discuss this – honoring the role of the eighth grade leaders. We also note that over the course of the year, the seventh graders will be provided with increasing opportunities to fulfill these duties, so that by the following year, they will be prepared to do the modeling for incoming students.

Initially, however, the eighth graders are given all the classroom leadership responsibilities such as: running morning meeting, helping new students manage a checklist of assignments, and reinforcing behavioral expectations.

Additionally, the language of leadership pervades our discussions with students. The poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart is displayed in each of our classrooms, and we use this as a tool to identify what leadership is.  On a near daily basis, we say things like, “I need a couple of leaders,” “Where are my leaders?” “Can I get some leader volunteers?” or “It doesn’t matter where we are, we always behave like leaders.” Leadership is always referenced as an expectation for all, not just a quality that a few motivated students will demonstrate.

This is why student reinforcement is so critical. Every classroom has students who are internally motivated to lead and are responsive to teacher mentoring. Sometimes we call these students the “good kids” or “the bright ones” or “teachers’ pets.” A shift in classroom climate occurs, however, when all students are expected to demonstrate leadership, and I suspect that this can only be accomplished through positive peer pressure.

At Gamble, peer leadership modeling begins in earnest with the closing ceremony at fall camp.  Camp happens early in the school year — within the first three weeks.  The 7th graders are brand new to us, and their official initiation to the community occurs on the final night of the fall camping experience.

This ceremony is entirely planned by the eighth graders.  In our community, it never fails that year after year, the eighth graders want to initiate the seventh graders by identifying and labeling their character strengths.  This practice was begun with our first group of students, and each year it is handed down as tradition.  This is a powerful example of peer transmission of culture.

So, invariably, just days before camp, a large group of eighth graders spend their lunchtime in my room frantically preparing certificates with individual names and character strength labels.

Listening to them discuss what they have observed in their seventh grade peers is so sweet.  It sounds something like this:

“What about Dahlia, what’s her strength?”

“She’s talkative.”

“Oh yeah, she is.  But that sounds kind of bad.  How can we make it good?”

“I don’t know.  Outgoing?”

“Yeah, that’s good.  What about Ramon?”

“Ramon, I don’t know.  He’s so quiet.  I hardly even notice him.  Ms. Taylor, what is Ramon’s character strength?”

“Hmmmmm … sounds like you need to observe him a little more.  Do you think you can do that and then come back tomorrow and have a character strength for him?”

“Yeah, we can do that.”

This work of identifying character strengths requires them to do multiple things.   They must review the various character strengths, intentionally observe their new classmates, and see them in a positive light.  What an incredible way to begin leading a group of new students.

This type of leadership is a responsibility, an expectation, and an obligation, but it is also so much more.  Because it is done by students year after year, it is seen as an honor, as something to be earned and entrusted with.

When treated this way, leadership becomes a somewhat revered role.  I believe this is why I typically have so many students willing to take on leadership tasks, even when they know that it usually involves additional work. All I have to do is ask, “I need a couple of leader volunteers.  Who’s willing to help?”  And every time, many, many hands go up.  It is an honor to be called on to complete these tasks, and the work is viewed not as a menial job, but as a responsibility to be assumed for the good of the group.

I giggled this spring upon overhearing the following exchange between two young ladies.  We were outside taking a break from the stressors of standardized testing, and Aaliyah began picking up pieces of trash.  Mi’Neasia looked at her and said, “What are you doing that for?”  Aaliyah’s response made me so proud.  “You know Ms. Taylor’s going to make us do it in a minute, so we might as well get started.”

Let’s be clear, no one likes to pick up trash.  But Aaliyah knew that “Leaving a Place Better Than We Found It” was part of what we always did as leaders, and she viewed it as an obligation.  She took the initiative before being asked, and then transmitted this expectation to a peer.

I am certain that if I, as the teacher, solely dictated the requirement of completing these types of extra jobs, I would be met with complaining and resistance, but when peers model diligent completion of the work, the entire experience shifts positively.

Of course, leadership doesn’t develop exclusively as a result of peer modeling.  There must also be opportunities for leadership development built into the curriculum, but I do not believe that we would get nearly the same results without the benefit of students leading the way.

And like all growth, leadership doesn’t develop in one neatly-graphable, continuous line, and it isn’t developed overnight, or even over a few weeks. Although I was startled by my sudden recognition during morning meeting that the students sitting before me had become leaders, there was really nothing sudden about it. My students had been working on leadership all year, and it was the consistent guidance and direction of their eighth grade peers that had steered them toward that readiness. They recognized this and were able to articulate it.

Each year, while the eighth graders are in Pigeon Key, Florida engaged in an intensive marine biology study that serves as our culminating middle school experience, the seventh graders prepare a celebration to honor them.  It is a bit of a mirror image of the fall camp ceremony, and serves to pass the torch of leadership.

This year, as part of the ceremony they planned, they wrote this:

“Dear 8th graders,  It’s been a long year with everyone.  A lot of things have changed with improved grades, behavior, and leadership skills.  It’s been a big transition throughout the year.  Everyone has shown growth tremendously, and I would like to thank the 8th graders for showing me the path to be an 8th grade leader.  Everyone will be missed.”

And this.

“I know not only 7th graders improved, but you did as well.  You were once in the same position as us, now look where you’re at.  You were such a big help to us because you taught us how to be the 8th grade leaders you are today.  We will miss every, single one of you, and hopefully you’ll miss us too.  Most importantly, as you go to the 9th grade, just remember that you’ll always be UL leaders.  P.S. Try not to make Ms. Taylor too emotional when you leave.”

They were ready to move on, and they recognized this in themselves, and in each other.

Just one week after that culminating moment, we said good-bye.  The seventh graders headed off into another long summer break, and the eighth graders did the same, prepared to engage in an entirely different academic adventure upon their return.

They had come so far, and, while they often tease me about being “too emotional,” I know that they, too, felt the bittersweet pang of farewell. For a full ten minutes after the bell rang on that last day of school, my teaching partners and I had students clustered around us for hugs and final words.

Lisa, who ended the year with beautiful grades, threw her arms around me, as I whispered in her ear, “You’ve worked so hard. Remember that first quarter conference when you had to tell your mom that you were failing? Just look at you now!” She burst into tears and hugged me even tighter.

Derek, an 8th grader, who was incredibly immature when he arrived at Gamble and who spent the better part of a year being the class clown, stood tall and gave me a tight hug, as he said proudly and confidently, “You know I’m gonna miss you next year in the 9th grade.”

And Astrid, a painfully shy 7th grader who has finally begun to find her place and her voice in our community. As is her way, she waited patiently and silently for her hug until all the more boisterous students had gotten a turn. I looked into her eyes, and saw such longing for recognition there. I told her what I know to be true: “You will be such a powerful leader for our new students next year. You know all the quiet ones? The ones who are so afraid to come to high school? You’re in charge of them next year, okay?” She silently nodded as her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me good-bye.

And even Andrew, who had a very difficult year and will be repeating the seventh grade, waited for his hug, and then shoved a crumpled post-it note in my hand saying gruffly, “Read that.” It said, “Thanks for helping me do better and have grit. I will miss you these three months.”

I was almost certainly “too emotional” when they left.  Because I was not ready.  But they were. They were ready to move on to the next level of challenge, and that is what matters. That is how you measure a year.

 

[1] “Peer Pressure.”Teenagers and Peer Pressure – Causes and Effects. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.

 

[2] Miller, Stuart. “Inside a Multiage Classroom.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 May 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.

 

The Seven Gateways: The Longing for Silence and Solitude

It was the witching hour at fall camp. That tricky time that happens each day as the afternoon activity wraps up, dinner preparation must begin, and the canoeing group, which necessarily includes the bulk of teachers and chaperones, hasn’t yet returned to the campground. What this all means is too many wound-up students and not enough adult hands to go around.

I had just led our afternoon activity of a serious Olympic Games competition. This consisted of multiple activities such as wheelbarrow races, leapfrog races, football tosses, and one-legged stands. You know, all the famous Olympic sports.

 

Hilarity had ensued as student less-than-gracefully leap-frogged over each other and attempted to distract each other from standing stock-still on one leg for an unfathomable amount of time. The event culminated in a raucous Olympic medal ceremony replete with extremely off-key anthem singing.

And, this year, there had been a little thunder thrown in for good measure – just to help keep everyone calm.

And thus the witching hour began with 25 hyped-up adolescents and me. I needed to get them settled and working on their packets, so I could begin overseeing dinner crew, but I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to manage the transition.

I must have felt really desperate because I threw all caution to the wind and tried something new – all the while being absolutely certain that there was no way it would work.

I put on my best serious and quiet “Montessori voice” — not an easy feat on the third day of camp right after the Olympic games and just before an impending thunderstorm – and I said, “Do you guys remember last week when I told you about The Silence Game?”

Maria Montessori designed The Silence Game in her work with young children. She asked the children to be quiet, to “create silence,” and then she waited across the room from them and called their names individually in a barely audible voice. When a child heard his name called, he would walk across the room as quietly as possible and sit down silently.

I had introduced this concept to my students the previous week as the foundation of the practice of solo time that we use in the Montessori adolescent classroom. So in the controlled chaos of the moments just following our Olympic games, I told my students that we were going to play this game. I asked them to create silence, and when I tapped them on the shoulder they were to silently walk over to the pavilion area, have a seat, and begin working on their assignment packets.

I really did not think it was going to work.

But it did. This cluster of pubescent energy that differed little from a litter of puppies, closed their eyes and stilled. As I quietly moved among them, tapping them on the shoulder, they remained silent and practically floated, one at a time, toward the pavilion.

I very nearly giggled in my astonishment at the game’s success. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

In The Soul of Education, Rachel Kessler identifies the yearning of silence and solitude as one of the seven gateways to the adolescent soul.

“The longing for silence and solitude, often an ambivalent domain, is fraught with both fear and urgent need. As a respite from the tyranny of ‘busyness’ and noise, silence may be a realm of reflection, of calm or fertile chaos, an avenue of stillness and rest for some, prayer and contemplation for others.”

Montessori used The Silence Game to help young children develop focus and concentration as she asked them to remain silent for gradually longer increments of time.

In the busyness and constant engagement of today’s world, children need this opportunity to practice silence even more than they did during Montessori’s time. A recent study conducted by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds to eight seconds. To put this into perspective, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. [1]

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimuli such that, for many of us, silence and stillness are uncomfortable. We are easily bored and seek out the next engaging thing, often through ready access to mobile devices.

And yet there is plenty of evidence that our brains need this silence and solitude. Spending time in silence:

  • Relieves stress and tension
  • Replenishes mental resources
  • Allows the brain to access its default mode leading to deep and creative thinking
  • Helps regenerate brain cells [2]

Classrooms are busy places. There is little time or opportunity to rest, and yet neuroscience is discovering that the rewards of silence are great.

In the secondary Montessori classroom, Kessler’s concept of an adolescent longing for silence and solitude is combined with Montessori’s philosophy that the child can be taught to focus by being asked to practice silence for increasing periods of time. We call this work “solo time.”

Solo time consists of a period of time lasting anywhere from ten minutes to forty-five minutes. Some schools practice solo time daily; other schools do it once a week. During solo time, students must engage in a silent, independent activity. Choices often include coloring, journaling, reading, sketching, puzzles, Play-Doh, Legos or other building material, or just sitting in meditative silence.

 

 

 

When the concept is first introduced, many students take immediate joy in participating in solo time, but quite a few students, and even some adults, actively dislike it. They find it hard to remain still, they are bored, and they are drawn to whisper to their peers, move around the classroom, or otherwise meet their need for greater stimulation. At the beginning of the year, after each of the first few times we “do solo,” we discuss, as a class, what this experience was like. Many students describe how challenging it is for them to be still and to refrain from interaction with others. Some require behavioral redirection to be able to comply with these seemingly simple expectations.

Over time, however, almost all students develop enjoyment for this quiet time.

Solo time is especially powerful when it is conducted outside. Sometimes, we are able to do this on school grounds; however, we also hold outdoor solo time during our overnight field experiences.   Our most profound of these experiences is the 8th grade culminating trip to Pigeon Key, Florida. Solo time on Pigeon Key is especially transcendent because it feels so remote from “the real world,” and thus really provides the opportunity for deep silence and solitude. Students are powerfully affected by experiencing solo time in this setting, and they beg to do it more often and for longer periods of time.

 

Last year after the solo time on the first night on the island, Cavin wrote this in his journal.

“The solo time was literally the best solo time I’ve ever had. Like at first I was worried but then something helped me out, and I could really focus. It’s like you never notice how beautiful everything is with all the negativity around America and humanity. During the solo time I got to see nautical beauty and worry about nothing. It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything. It was pretty cool too, like I had wanted there to be more time.”

His words are especially profound because he had been battling depression all year, and had spent some time in the hospital due to suicidal ideation. What greater gift could we give him then an opportunity, even if just for a few minutes, “to worry about nothing?”

Solo time is just one way of embedding a practice of silence and solitude into the classroom.

It is all too easy to get caught up in all the things that need to be done in the limited time we are with our students. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we have five hours each day or just a single fifty-minute bell, the time is never enough. It’s hard to consider giving up any of this precious time to something as simple as silence.

And in the adolescent classroom, it can be equally hard to imagine that our students are actually going to cooperate in this. After all, the need for socialization is one of the critical hallmarks of the adolescent being. It is embedded in their very nature to interact nearly constantly with each other.

However, Kessler describes this gateway as a longing for silence and solitude. While on the surface, it may not be something students prioritize, they have a deep need for it.

In a similar vein, classroom mindfulness practices are growing and gaining national attention. A number of programs, such as Mindful Schools and CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators) have sprung up both as a means to train teachers to bring these practices into the classroom, and as a strategy to support teachers in coping with the stressors and demands of their job.

Public schools in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewherehave implemented the use of mindfulness both as a daily practice and as a way to help students calm down when they are engaged in conflict or misbehavior.

These programs are seeing powerful outcomes related to both reduced discipline and increased achievement. While there has not been a tremendous amount of research conducted on the impact of meditation on the developing brain, initial studies demonstrate some important benefits.

  • Increased attention
  • Improved grades
  • Better attendance
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Greater self-control
  • Enhanced social-emotional skills[3]

Mindfulness practices come at little to no cost, seem to have no negative impact, and have the potential for significant positive gains. Mindfulness is gaining ground as a structure that may be of great benefit to schools, teachers, and students, but why hasn’t this ancient concept been adopted sooner and more quickly in classrooms around the country?

I can only try and answer that question based on my own experience. I have been trained in bringing mindfulness practices into the classroom three times. Yes, I said three times. The first time I received this training was in 1999. Right. Eighteen years ago. I later completed two different mindfulness programs, in 2014 and in 2016, respectively. And yet I still have not implemented a mindfulness practice in my classroom.

Why not?

Because it’s scary.

Imagine telling 30 adolescents to close their eyes, sit silently, and focus on their breath. Okay, admittedly, it doesn’t sound so scary when it’s written out like that, but in the moment it feels like the critical balance between control and chaos could be tipped at any moment. All it would take is for one student to say something goofy, or make a weird noise, or expose the practice as a sham, and suddenly, the whole class would be disrupted, and you would spend the remainder of the time trying to regain control of the group.

This is every teacher’s nightmare, but I have to admit I’ve never had this happen.

Each time I’ve dabbled in meditation in the classroom, it’s been incredibly well-received by students. Some students really appreciate it, and even ask for it. Most tolerate it without complaint, and none has ever been disruptive.

And yet, I still don’t have a developed mindfulness practice. #teachergoals2018

For now, we do solo time every week, and more frequently when we are on multi-day field experiences.

If, like me, you don’t feel ready to jump full-force onto the mindfulness bandwagon, there are many other ways, of bringing silent reflection into the classroom – including the establishment of a structured solo time.

CARE recommends implementing the following strategies as a way to get started:

  • Calmer Transitions
  • Take 5
  • Use of a “Quiet Corner” or “Peace Corner.”
  • Mindful Walking and Centering

Each of these is described more fully here. 

Despite their very social and talkative nature, students really do long for silence and solitude.

 

As their guides, it is our responsibility to help them find time and space for this.

 

 

[1] McSpadden, Kevin. “Science: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish.”Time. Time, 14 May 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

[2] Gregoire, Carolyn. “Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

[3] Walton, Alice G. “Science Shows Meditation Benefits Children’s Brains And Behavior.”Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 24 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

The Systemic Problem of Teacher Burnout

Last week, my students and I were out of the building on a field experience. As our speaker wrapped up, he called on one final student who had his hand-raised. The student said, “I’d like to acknowledge you for taking the time to talk to us today and for answering all our questions.”

Acknowledgments are a regular practice at Gamble, and I typically ask students to provide acknowledgments for our hosts at the conclusion of our field experiences.  This time, I had forgotten.  But Peter had not.

When Carissa, who was sitting next to me, heard Peter’s unprompted acknowledgment, she turned to me, smiling, and whispered, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

She didn’t know it, but her statement was akin to throwing me a lifeline. You see, it was just two days before spring break, and I was running from the specter of teacher burnout and losing ground fast. It was a race to the finish to see which would break first – the school year, or me.

Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” (Mirriam-Webster)

Teacher burnout is described in many ways, but I found this list of warning signs to be particularly helpful.[1]

  • Exhaustion – a fatigue so deep that there’s no way to “turn it off”
  • Extreme graveness –Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing
  • Anxiety – The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more
  • Being overwhelmed – Questioning how you can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate
  • Seeking —Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm
  • Isolation –Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability

The stress and exhaustion of teaching is well documented. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 46% of teachers experience high levels of daily stress. This is on par with nurses, and tops the list of surveyed occupations.[2]

Another indicator of stress and exhaustion is the statistic that 43% of teachers sleep an average of six or fewer hours a night.[3] It’s little wonder then that “sleep” was the number one response my colleagues provided in answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about spring break?”

This continual stress and exhaustion leads to burnout, but teacher burnout is more than just a problem for individual teachers and schools. It is so pervasive that it has profound impacts on the profession as a whole.

NPR cites the following concerning statistics: [4]

  • 8% of teachers leave the field each year; only one-third of this attrition is due to retirement
  • 50% of the teaching profession turns over every 7 years
  • 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
  • Enrollment in teacher-training programs has fallen 35% in the past five years; a loss of 240,000 teachers

What exactly is it that causes such high levels of stress in teaching? Those who are not in the field of education are often stymied by this. “Seven hour school days and all major holidays and summers off,” they reason. “What’s so stressful about that?”

However, the difference between the working hours obligated by the contract (as described above) and the fulfillment of the contractual requirements of the job (as described below) is profound. I used to count my work hours each week, but after spending a year consistently tallying 65-70 hour weeks, I stopped counting. It was too overwhelming. And I’m not different from any of my colleagues. All of us work a tremendous number of hours beyond our contractual obligation. Some of this is expected. No one goes into teaching actually believing that the work will be contained within school hours, but how does a contracted thirty-five hour week balloon into seventy hours of work?

Let’s begin with the school day. For me, five of the seven hours each day are spent actively teaching. I am fortunate to have two “planning bells” each day; however one of these is used every day for different variations of team meetings, and the other one is almost always consumed by parent conferences or other meetings. On average, I have one bell (50 minutes) a week that I can actually use to plan.

During my half hour lunch, I open my classroom to students who need help with their work, or who are just seeking a calmer and quieter option than the cafeteria. I eat and work. Sometimes I forget to eat.

I have meetings after school every day with the exception of Fridays, and the third Thursday of the month. These meetings run for 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I have back-to-back after-school meetings.

All of the remaining requirements of teaching must occur outside of the time already listed above. These requirements include:

  • Designing curriculum
  • Writing lesson plans
  • Creating materials
  • Preparing the classroom
  • Grading student work
  • Entering grades
  • Discipline logging
  • Making parent phone calls
  • Completing paperwork (SLOs, IEPs, ETRs, 504s, WEPs, 90 Day Plans, … )
  • Copying
  • Stapling
  • Hole punching …

My friends in business can’t understand. They ask me why I don’t just delegate some of this work. “Delegate?!” I laugh. “To whom??” Teachers are at the bottom of food chain; most of us have no one to whom to delegate. (I am fortunate to have a paraprofessional on my team; however she is shared by seven teachers, so her time is spread very thin.)

There are additional stressors beyond those of limited time as well. Some commonly cited external factors are:[5]

  • Lack of resources
  • Low pay
  • Test score pressure
  • Changing assessments and expectations
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Ever-increasing paperwork requirements

It’s not a mystery why fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to become teachers. Those who do choose to enter the field of education join dedicated veteran teachers in seeing teaching as more than just a job. For most, teaching is a calling or a purpose.

Anything that is seen not just as a profession, but as a vocation, a mission, a passion, and a purpose requires an internal fire to fuel it. And all fires run the risk of being extinguished.

There is precious little fire-feeding oxygen left in American education, and this is showing up in extraordinarily high rates of burnout and teacher turnover.

So what can we do about it?

When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – “Teacher, heal thyself!”

“5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout”

“6 Signs of, and Solutions for, Teacher Burnout”

“7 Self-Care Strategies”

“10 Steps to Avoiding Teacher Burnout”

And my personal favorite …

25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout”

Because that’s just what a stressed-out and overwhelmed teacher needs – 25 more things to add to her to-do list. Number 2 on that list, by the way, is “Smile.”

The message that these types of articles are sending is that burnout is a failure of the teacher to properly take care of herself.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that each of the suggestions on all of those lists are good ways to encourage people to take care of themselves, and they place the locus of control with the teacher, which is empowering. My issue, however, is two-fold: these articles attempt to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and they ask the teacher whose internal fire is dying to re-kindle her own flame, when she is likely the person least able to do this.

Let’s start with the problem. I am often told that I “shouldn’t work so hard.” That’s a nice platitude, but I find it profoundly frustrating because when I ask which part of my job requirements I should fail to complete, or complete with marginal quality, in order to save myself some time, I never get an answer.

I often say that the greatest challenge of teaching should be educating the students in our classrooms. That’s a hard job all by itself for a wide-variety of reasons. When it is made harder by policies, inefficiencies, and bureaucracy, we have done everyone involved a grave disservice. I have previously written about the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed on teachers by educational legislation here and here.

A friend of mine who has studied organizational management had this to say regarding teacher burnout, “I think with what we are asking of teachers the question is, ‘How could teachers not be burned out, and how can all of us (administrators, community members, school boards) help to combat this?’”

And that’s just it. If education is important to our society, then teachers must be deemed important as well, and all of us must help to solve the societal problem of teacher burnout. Our children need good teachers, and good teachers work very hard. Keeping them in the profession is a shared responsibility.

Some action steps:

  • Vote for school levies, even if you don’t have a child in school – resources, especially as related to staffing (the greatest single expense), are key.
  • Speak out against the school reform madness – especially if you are a parent in an affluent school district.
  • Don’t participate in teacher or school bashing, or allow others to do the same – the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s teacher and school. The narrative that America has a preponderance of bad teachers and bad schools is simply not upheld by data.
  • Demand that your local school board set decent wages for teachers, and that they provide appropriate cost of living increases.
  • Support your child’s teacher – give the benefit of the doubt, encourage your child to develop independence, and nurture his or her self-advocacy skills before getting involved in potential school conflicts (see The Gift of Failure)
  • Acknowledge teachers for the positive work that they do – better yet share these acknowledgments with administrators. Parents with complaints readily share their concerns with administration; positive comments should be shared as well.
  • Don’t tell a teacher to “take time for herself – sleep, exercise, meditate, invite a friend for lunch, smile” unless you’re willing to help take something off her plate that allows her to do that.
  • If you know a teacher, ask how you can help – anyone can cut, collate, staple, hole punch.
  • Say thank you – again and again and again. This is why we do what we do.

I remain hopeful that those things can make a difference, but I don’t have much faith that the epidemic of teacher burnout will change soon. The anti-education “school reform” movement is powerful. It will take time to weaken its death grip on the throat of public schools.

But in the interim, all is not lost. Who better to support burning out teachers than those who know the industry the best – teachers. We are all on fire, but we burn with different levels of brightness at different times. We can each use our spark to help kindle the dwindling embers of another’s fire. A wise teacher I know said, “When we become a true community of educators in our building and in larger society, I find that I am not the island.”

Catherine McTamaney writes about this same thing in her book, A Delicate Task. “Teaching is hard. [We] are asked to give up so much of ourselves, to make ourselves humble and lowly before the child, to be servants, to be scientists, to be saints … but there are others on the path with us. We can lean on each other. We can walk in each other’s footsteps. Sometimes we’re at the front of the path. Sometimes we’re following another traveler. Sometimes we’re resting … Sometimes we’re so far ahead or behind that we can’t even see each other anymore. But we’re not alone. We are each other’s navigational stars.”[6]

To be “each other’s navigational stars,” we have to be connected to one another, and we have to pay attention to one another. While I believe that all teachers can help each other to combat burnout, my interpretation is that this work should fall most heavily on veteran teachers, mentor teachers, building leadership, and administration.

In supporting each other, we must not simply be content to provide inspiration. We must work to create environments that make teaching easier without sacrificing the best interests of our students. Here are some of the in-building supports that teachers say help them to be more resilient.

  • Leadership that is supportive and non-punitive
  • Having someone willing to slow down and listen when they have a concern
  • The provision of more time to allow for planning and collaboration
  • Work that is equitably shared by everyone
  • Meeting time spent to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness in the classroom, not to create additional work
  • Good communication
  • Consistent expectations
  • Follow-through: being able to trust that what was agreed upon will occur
  • Celebration of successes
  • Acknowledgment of good work

In my role as team leader, I’ve recently initiated a process to try and help with some of this. For each of the last two quarters, I’ve met one-on-one with every member of my team. To prepare for our meetings I’ve asked them to consider their responses to four questions.

  • What are three things you want to brag about from this quarter?
  • What is your current burning issue?
  • How can I help?
  • What I can do to be more effective in my role as team leader?

We’ve had some rich conversations, and I’ve gotten to know each of them better, but my great hope is that I’ve helped them to see the value in what they do, and to examine how they can keep improving.

The hardest question is always “What are three things you want to brag about?” At just about every conference, I hear, “I can’t think of three.” My response? “Yes, you can. Think harder.” And they do.

Asking them to identify a burning issue is the same thing as saying, “What do you most want to improve?” – except somehow it feels more approachable.

How can I help?”  is my favorite of the four questions. I’ve learned that it is much more powerful than its more common counterpart, “Let me know if I can help.” The latter provides an option to decline by omission; the former does not. If I ask about a burning issue and then don’t seek ways to help, I am essentially saying, “I see you struggling. Best of luck to you!”

The final question is purely selfish. I simply want to know how to get better at what I do.

I have only just begun this process, so I cannot say how effective it will prove to be in the long run, but I’ve gotten short-term positive feedback. Recently, I offered the opportunity to correspond via email if scheduling meetings took too much precious time. In response to this, one of my colleagues said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to give up the deliciousness of that meeting with you.” While I can’t say whether or not our meeting was “delicious,” we did have a powerful dialogue.

No single strategy will suffice to fix the great challenges and stressors in education. Teachers must remember, sometimes through the fog and the haze of exhaustion, that it’s really all about the students. The students are the most powerful motivators and sustainers of all. I, like many teachers, keep a file full of notes like this one.

We must remind ourselves, and each other, every day if necessary, that the work we do matters.

As Carissa said, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

Hold on to those lifelines. Write them down. Remember them, and help each other to see them.  Keep those fires burning.

 

 

[1] Pillars, Wendi. “Six Signs Of—and Solutions For—Teacher Burnout.” Education Week Teacher. N.p., 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[2] Turner, Cory. “Teachers Are Stressed, And That Should Stress Us All.” NPR. NPR, 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[3] Stuart, Dave, Jr. “Not Getting Enough Sleep? Tired Teachers Aren’t Usually the Best Teachers.” NEA Today. National Education Association, 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

[4] Westervelt, Eric. “Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It’s Time To Address The National Teacher Shortage.” NPR. NPR, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[5] “Surviving Teacher Burnout.” NEA Today. N.p., 01 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[6] Edd, Catherine Mctamaney. Delicate Task: Teaching and Learning on a Montessori Path. Place of Publication Not Identified: IUniverse Com, 2012. Print. p.xv.

 

The Courage to Teach – Rather Than Test

Imagine a standardized test being used to measure the healing of a patient, and the effectiveness of the doctor.

It would look something like this.

A doctor sees a patient through treatment of a condition, and at the end of a prescribed length of time the patient completes a bubble test to determine progress. It is irrelevant what the patient’s condition was at the start of treatment, what other issues the patient is experiencing, how long the patient received treatment, or how well the patient followed medical advice.

The physician’s perception of the patient’s progress, or any additional insights he or she might have, is also irrelevant.   It is the bubble test result that will determine whether the physician is an effective practitioner.

This scenario is readily recognized as absurd, and even potentially dangerous, when applied to medicine. Why do we accept it as appropriate for education?

Yet, high-stakes standardized testing is viewed as not just appropriate for education, it is viewed as essential. So essential, that even in the face of dissent from the majority of parents and educators, our politicians continue to reinforce the myth that standardized tests are a fundamental method for assessing student learning, and therefore, by extrapolation, a credible way to determine the effectiveness of teachers and schools.

This false narrative was initiated with the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 and reinforced and perpetuated through Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, and most recently, The Every Student Succeeds Act.

Ohio’s implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act is how I found myself standing at a podium providing testimony before the Joint Education Oversight Committee at the Ohio Statehouse.

“Ms. Taylor, do you believe that the state legislature can honestly check the required box indicating that stakeholder feedback was included in the Ohio plan?”

This was the final question I was asked during my testimony. I had been invited to the statehouse by the Ohio Federation of Teachers to serve as a voice for educators across the state, and to provide insight to the committee on whether the Ohio draft plan for implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accurately reflects the views of stakeholders and serves as a visionary document.

Being called for this task felt like a huge responsibility.

I walked into the room expecting something fairly familiar and comfortable. In my mind, I was anticipating a group of people sitting around a conference table. Instead there was a podium in front of a raised bench of legislators. This suddenly felt like an overwhelming responsibility. I was near certain that the entire room could hear my heart racing and my knees knocking.

I knew that my physiologic reaction was ridiculous. I have engaged in significant research and reflection on this topic. I know the salient points, and I know how to articulate them in a cohesive and powerful manner. And I am not afraid.

Except I was afraid.

This was more important than fear. To quote Dr. Seuss, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”

I speak for students, and for educators, and for our future society because high-stakes standardized testing is not innocuous. It is not just something we debate about at the dining room table. It is truly damaging.

However, we are up against a mighty foe – the testing industry and a social construct that school accountability measures are effective, necessary, and appropriate – and we must be willing to fight furiously against this.

Which is how I found myself testifying at the Ohio statehouse about ESSA.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed by the federal government in December of 2015. It replaces No Child Left Behind, and it allows states greater flexibility in teacher and school accountability measures.

One of the requirements of ESSA is the engagement of stakeholders in the process of developing state plans. It is this mandate that prompted the question asked by Representative Fedor. She is a state representative from Toledo who serves on this committee, and she is a friend to education.

The Ohio ESSA draft plan notes, “As part of the legislation, each state is required to conduct significant outreach to stakeholders to collect input for their state plan. Ohio takes this mandate very seriously and has already engaged 15,000 Ohioans in the development of this draft.”

In every section of the draft there is evidence of stakeholder feedback. However, startlingly, in several critical areas, this feedback has not been incorporated into the current plan.

Relative to required testing, the plan states, in the section titled Aligned Academic Assessments, that stakeholders emphasized the need to “strategically reduce tests where it makes sense to do so.” It goes on to claim that “while the state has reduced the amount of time students spend taking tests – down by approximately 50% from 2014 to 2016 – stakeholders expressed an interest in continuing to explore a further reduction in testing.”

And here is the statement regarding the testing requirements under the “new” plan. “As part of ESSA, Ohio will reexamine its testing requirements. The department is poised to work closely with the Governor, legislature, and education leaders to examine the pros and cons of adjusting the testing schedule.”

In other words: no change.

Additionally, while it is true that testing has been significantly reduced since the 2014-2015 test administration, this data is a red herring. It seems to imply that, over time, testing requirements have been reduced, and that is simply inaccurate. The 2014-2015 school year included the ill-fated implementation of the PARCC testing. Each of the PARCC tests included two administrations – one in February and one in April, thus doubling testing requirements. Thankfully, this double battery of tests was eliminated with the transition to the AIR tests the following school year. This change did reduce testing by nearly half; however if the 2014-2015 school year is removed from the data set as an outlier, then it becomes clear that over time, the number of mandatory state tests in Ohio has actually increased, not decreased.

The second area in the Ohio ESSA draft plan that I found concerning was the provisions regarding teacher evaluation. Currently, Ohio public educators are evaluated based on a combination of factors, and this varies based on the grade and subject area being taught, and that grade and/or subject area’s testing requirements.

Here is what Ohio’s ESSA draft plan says,

Stakeholders expressed:

  • “Strong support for local educators – they understand the critical roles teachers and leaders play in helping students learn and grow”
  • “Educators do not believe that the current evaluation system is working as it should”
  • “Concern on the part of educators related to the calculation of student growth and its inclusion in the evaluation system”

“Ohio’s state plan requires a description of our methods for ensuring that students have access to quality teachers and leaders. Our plan will be based on those elements currently in state law and our existing equity plan.”

In other words: no change.

Currently, the Ohio teacher evaluation system is designed on a combination of factors. This is a complex calculation where 50% of a teacher’s evaluation comes from observational data assessed using the rubric of the etpes system, which includes 10 areas of assessment, each of which can be scored as: Accomplished, Skilled, Developing, or Ineffective. The remaining 50% varies based on the grade and subject area being taught, and that grade and/or subject area’s testing requirements.

For some Cincinnati Public School teachers, this remaining 50% comes exclusively from the value-added measure of standardized test results. For other teachers, 26% comes from the teacher’s value-added standardized test results, 10% comes from shared attribution – or the standardized test data for growth across the building as a whole, and 14% comes from “Student Learning Objectives” (SLOs). For teachers in non-tested areas, 40% comes from SLOs and 10% comes from shared attribution.

Clear as mud, right?

To add to the complexity, no one knows how these growth measures – called “value-added scores” are calculated.

Ohio contracts with Battelle, a private company, to generate value-added data from standardized test results. They consider their formula “proprietary information,” and despite evidence that these scores are invalid[1], they remain in place. The only mathematical approximation I have seen as to what this formula might look like is this.

This equation was put together by Mathematica Policy Research for the Washington, DC, public schools,

 

(Fortunately, because of the transition to new assessment tools, test data from the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years have been under what is known as “safe harbor,” meaning that for the given years, standardized test data has not been included in teacher evaluations.)

An additional piece to consider is that when the state counts the required number of tests, they fail to mention the requirements of Student Learning Objective assessments (SLOs). SLOs are another type of growth-measure assessment. Depending on the district, these may be vendor-purchased or teacher-created tests.   The majority of teachers must give two SLOs as a required component of their annual evaluation. Each SLO requires a pre-test and a post-test. So for every teacher, this is a minimum of 4 more mandated assessments. To be fair, these tests are far less burdensome than the state tests, but think about a high school student who may take seven classes. This student could take up to 28 SLO tests – two pre tests and two post tests for each of seven teachers. Add the state tests, and final exams, and, at some grade levels, the ACT, PSAT, or SAT as well.

Are you getting the picture yet?

Nevertheless, there remains more to the story. Currently, each of the state tests has 2 sections. Students with identified disabilities often receive an extended time testing accommodation; this allows them to have up to an entire school day to complete each portion of the test. I want to be very clear that I think this is an important provision.

As a special educator, I teach my students best-practice testing strategies. I teach them to read the questions before reading the passage. I teach them to read and annotate the text of the passage before beginning to answer the questions. I teach them to look back at the text. I teach them to use elimination. I teach them not to rush. I teach them to go back and check over all their answers – more than once. All of these things take time, and I have had several students who literally take the entire day to complete a section of the test. I do not want to restrict them in this.

However, many schools have high percentages of special education students. At Gamble, 36% of our students have identified disabilities. When this many students have the right to use the entire day for a section of the test, this provision drives the testing schedule. It is not fair, nor feasible, to give two sections of a test in a day to the general education population, while only scheduling one a day (as legally required) for the special education population. Doing so would mean that special education students would test for twice as many days as general education students, and would therefore miss the instruction being provided on the extra days of testing. This slower-paced scheduling increases the number of days relegated to testing.

At the high school level, there is yet another issue to consider. Passage of the high school state tests is required for graduation (unless a student is on the newly created vocational “pathway,” which has a whole different set of testing requirements.) Therefore, students who have not passed sections of the test are expected to retake these tests three times a year (one is a summer testing) until they achieve proficiency.

I don’t think that people who don’t work in schools really understand the true impact of what we are being told we must do. Governor Kasich has included in his current budget a requirement that teachers do “internships” with local businesses each time they renew their education licenses, so they understand the job requirements in the “real world.” Allow me to suggest that legislators (and executors) should be required to extern in schools, so they understand the actual “real world” implications of the mandates they are passing down.

Let me provide you with a real-world, worst-case scenario. I taught Bryce in junior high. He is a student with an identified learning disability. He struggles academically, but performs especially poorly in a testing situation.

Bryce is now a junior in high school, and he has not yet passed any of the required tests – ELA I, ELA II, Algebra I, Geometry (or Integrated Math I), Biology, or American History, and he is currently enrolled in American Government, which also has a required test. Each test has two sections. Extended time testing is written into Bryce’s IEP, so he must be provided with the option of using the entire day to complete each section of each test. He is a student who needs this extra time.

Were you counting? That’s 14 school days (or nearly three weeks) of testing.

These tests are scheduled by the state and district at the end of April and the beginning of May, as they should be since they are intended to assess the entire curriculum, and an earlier testing session would further truncate instructional time. However, in high school, students must also take final exams. In every class. Because of the timing of the school year, these final exams are administered immediately following the conclusion of the state testing. That is now 17 nearly-consecutive days of testing.

I have not yet mentioned that Bryce also had to take 6 of these state tests during the first round of retakes in December (Don’t forget – 2 sections for each test, so 12 days) and the ACT in April.   Before SLOs are factored into the equation, Bryce will have spent 30 days – or nearly 6 weeks of the school year – taking tests.

This is not just a nightmare; this is Bryce’s current reality.

And it is madness. Ultimately, it’s not even about student learning. It’s about assessment of public teachers and of public schools.

The test results that we put so much stake in and spend so much time thinking about and preparing for, are of little use in instructing students.

Does this come as a surprise? Let me explain.

The preliminary test results are generally released over the summer, and final data is usually provided at some point in the fall. At this point, the students who took these tests have moved on – to a new grade, a new teacher, and a new curriculum. The tests they will take next will be focused on the expectations of the new curriculum, not the old one, so knowing a student’s scores from the prior year is only marginally beneficial for a teacher.

In addition, what does this data show? It may seem as if this question should have an obvious answer. They show what a student knows, and therefore, by extrapolation, they show how well a student has been taught. Right?

I question this assumption.

Any teacher will tell you that his or her test scores vary from year to year – often wildly. Are we really that erratic in our teaching practices?

The value-added measures can indicate huge gains – more than two years of academic growth in a year’s time. That sounds great, but, as an educator who has received scores like this, I am not convinced that this is realistic. In the same vein, value-added measures can indicate huge losses – more than 2 years of academic decline in a year’s time. How is this even remotely possible? How is it possible for a teacher to be so bad that she or he causes a student to LOSE two years of academic instruction, while simultaneously providing instruction for the entirety of a year?

This makes no sense.

Early this year, I learned that my teaching partner and I had the highest test scores in the building related to student comprehension of informational text. I was asked what we did to have such success – how could this be replicated throughout the building?

I had to laugh. What did we do? We heavily taught literary text. We focused less on informational text last year than we ever had before.

It wasn’t really intentional. We just didn’t have time for everything, and we had generally chosen literary text standards over informational ones that year. And yet our test scores for informational text standards were much higher than they were for literary text standards. Go figure.

So, I don’t have the greatest confidence in the reliability of testing data as an indicator of much of anything at all. Besides, if standardized tests tell us such important information, why aren’t private and parochial schools demanding these tests? Why aren’t our politicians demanding that the schools that many of their children attend be implementing these tools that measure student learning and teacher effectiveness?   Don’t they want the best for their children? Don’t they want to be reassured that their child is learning? Don’t they want to know the quality of their children’s teachers?

No, they don’t. They don’t because standardized tests are not an effective tool for assessing these important things.

We put students in public schools through this wringer of testing for what? If it doesn’t tell us about kids, and it doesn’t tell us about instruction, and it doesn’t tell us about teachers, then why are we doing it? That remains unclear.

It seems as if nearly everyone has one or more teachers who had a profound influence on their growth and development. Who was yours? Think about this person – or these people. Try to identify what it was that made them so influential, so impactful on your life. What were the qualities they possessed that inspired or guided you?

Now consider the impossibility of designing a standardized-test based teacher or school evaluation system around fostering those qualities. Do we want to build educational institutions around test scores, or do we want to build them around nurturing children?

So to answer Representative Fedor’s question: Has the state effectively included stakeholder feedback in the development of Ohio’s ESSA draft plan?

In a word, No.

Stakeholders clearly said, “Fewer tests.” The draft plan indicates no change in the number of tests.

Stakeholders clearly said, “Amend the teacher evaluation system.” The draft plan indicates no change to the teacher evaluation system.

Despite more than a year to develop it, the draft plan doesn’t look much different from what Ohio’s educational legislation looked like under No Child Left Behind. To be fair, in both of the sections of the draft plan that I have critiqued, there is indication that changes could come in the future. However, Ohio has had more than a year to develop this plan, why isn’t change evidenced there already?

As I stated to Representative Fedor, and to the Committee as a whole, I was shocked to see the stakeholder feedback so blatantly ignored in the draft document. As an educator I feel devalued, disheartened, and unsupported by the state of Ohio.

The system is backwards. We have politicians telling educators what to do to prove themselves, rather than educators informing politicians about what it is we need in order to teach children.

What we don’t need are standardized tests. Politicians believe that these tests tell us important things about education. Teachers know that they do not.

Education is a service industry. Unlike manufacturing, service industries work with human capital. Our students are our raw material, and they are each unique individuals. They each come to us at a different place, they each have different external factors at play, and they each approach instruction in a different way.

Their growth and development is as complex as they each are as individuals. To try and measure this in a standardized manner is folly.

The Ohio state legislature wanted to know if the Draft Plan was visionary. Oxford defines the word visionary as, “Thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.”

Is the Ohio draft plan visionary? No. But then neither is ESSA. To be visionary, we must walk away from the folly of this testing madness.

There is precedent for this.

Just twenty years ago, we had a different system. There was no such thing as high-stakes testing.

Many schools gave standardized tests as a means to compare their students to students around the country. But not in every grade and not every year. It was one piece of the educational puzzle. It provided teachers and schools with some small amount of insight into student learning. But that is all. There was no school report card. There were no punitive measures for teachers.

We must walk back from the precipice on which we are standing. In just two decades, politicians and the testing industry have whipped us into a testing frenzy driven by the notion that these tests provide an accurate measure of school success, and that this is an appropriate way to hold schools and teachers accountable.

It is not.

To be truly visionary, it is not enough to simply demand fewer tests. We must change the paradigm. We must create a new narrative.

How to do this is, of course, the ultimate question. Teachers and parents must band together. We must arm ourselves with data and evidence. We must keep speaking truth to power. We must speak up again and again and again. We must have courage.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/leading-mathematician-debunks-value-added/2011/05/08/AFb999UG_blog.html?utm_term=.db74721d99d3

Growth Mindset: Creating A Culture of Courage

 – By Krista Taylor

“For me, the United Leaders way of thinking has made me see the world in a new light. I’m much more gritty than before and much more willing to be brave and courageous and to try new things.” – Adalira

This was a student’s response to the prompt, “How do the ideas of grit and growth mindset impact you?” I expected to hear words about perseverance, grit, and optimism. References to courage and bravery surprised me.

Courage. And bravery.

Courage and bravery don’t always look like martyrs facing down veritable lions or tigers. Sometimes they look like an adolescent working on a math problem.

When Shauna arrived at Gamble, two and a half years ago, it was hard for us to believe that she had not already been identified with a learning disability. Her educational needs were profound, and her faith in herself had been severely impacted by years of academic difficulty. Math was the most challenging subject for her, and she often coped with this by putting her head down, refusing to do work, demonstrating resistance to instruction, and sometimes even crying in class.

It is hard, perhaps impossible, for a student to learn when she is this disengaged.

But a few weeks ago, during my Algebra class, I overheard Shauna say something that once would have seemed nearly miraculous. She was working on a math problem with a peer when I heard her say the words: “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes. It says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this,”

Getting to witness a student’s blossoming self-confidence is an extraordinary event – one deeply rooted in the concepts of grit and growth mindset – and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Gamble was first introduced to the book Mindset, Carol Dweck’s seminal work on growth mindset, through a mini-PD that Jack gave at a staff meeting in 2011.

Dweck’s research has been so rapidly and widely embraced by the education community that it seems silly now, just six years after that training, to speak of it as revolutionary. But when Mindset was published in 2007, it was a radical concept.

Dweck proposes the notion that intelligence is not fixed. Rather, she argues that intelligence can be increased through the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. These neural pathways are generated through repeated practice, or perseverance, in a task.

Dweck refers to this shift in cognitive understanding as “the power of yet” as opposed to “the tyranny of now.”[1] Learning and development, she argues, are not a binary system. It isn’t an “I can” versus an “I can’t” proposition. Rather it is an ever-evolving continuum, and we need to shift our language to reflect what one is learning to do, or what one can “not yet” do.

Clearly, having a growth mindset is of value to all learners, so how can teachers and parents help to develop this attribute in children? Dweck says that the key for developing a growth mindset is to focus on effort, use of strategies, and progress. This is a shift from the traditional focus on achievement or on “being smart,” which Dweck claims leads to the development of what she calls “a fixed mindset” – the notion of an unchangeable level of cognitive ability.

Dweck argues quite convincingly, providing data to support her claim, that students who are regularly fed either the fixed mindset language of “being just not good at that” or, conversely, that of “being so good at that,” develop a near-paralyzing fear of failure. In the binary system of can and can’t do, when faced with a challenge, or when confronting error, students who have a fixed mindset tend to do one of three things – avoid the task, compare themselves to someone who has performed worse than themselves, or cheat. These students have been taught that their success stems directly from their innate intelligence or a lack thereof.

It is easy to accept that implying to children that they simply aren’t good at something is problematic. It is more challenging to understand that it is equally damaging to buoy self-esteem by noting mental acuity.

“You’re so smart,” may sound like positive reinforcement, but unfortunately, this belief has a dark shadow correlate. The covert message is that if success is due to natural intelligence, then any lack of success must be due to a lack of intelligence. And if intelligence is intrinsic, so too must be lack of intelligence. So every time a well-meaning teacher, parent, or coach praises a child for being smart, or talented, or athletic, they are unwittingly reinforcing the belief that these “gifts” are outside of the child’s control, and that therefore, when the child next experiences failure, that too is out of his or her control. If success and failure are outside of a child’s locus of control, then there is no reason to exert effort – either success comes easily, or one might as well not even try. For those with a fixed mindset, failure is a debilitating event.

However, students who demonstrate a “growth mindset” – an understanding that their success is dependent on their effort, and that learning and skill development are the reward for their investment of time and energy– prove just that. These students are functioning with a mentality of “I can’t do it yet,” not “I can’t do it at all.” These students are able to persevere through challenge without giving up, and as a result their performance improves. This is what leads to that blossoming self-confidence.

A few weeks ago, Shauna was working with a partner on a math assignment. The two were deeply and joyfully engaged in the task at hand – working with the slope-intercept form of linear equations. It was on this day that I was privileged to overhear Shauna’s words, “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes, it says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this.”

No one walking into my classroom would have seen anything particularly noteworthy, but that’s because they would only see the snapshot of that particular day, and not the movie reel of the last few years.

The important piece here is not whether or not Shauna was correct in her mathematical thinking; the important piece is that she exhibited the self-confidence to challenge a peer’s thinking, indicate a replacement solution, and provide reasoning to support her answer.

This was an act of courage and bravery.

And I believe it was a direct result of a focus on growth mindset in the classroom.

growth mindset language

Much of Dweck’s insight focuses on language choices, and there are many options available on the internet of student-friendly versions of replacement language used for encouraging a growth mindset. Here is the version my team uses.

When we first introduced this concept, the students snickered; we snickered. It seemed strange and stilted to say things like, “I’m going to train my brain,” or “Mistakes help me improve,” but we were surprised by how readily students embraced this shift. It has now become completely commonplace to hear students use these phrases to encourage themselves or others. Just the other day, I heard Dalya, who was struggling to grasp point-slope formula, mutter under her breath, “This is hard. I don’t get this.” Moments later, I watched her take a deep breath, and quietly say to herself, “This may take some time and effort.” I witnessed her emerging courage and bravery– the creation of growth mindset in action.

If Dweck’s work revolutionized our understanding of learning, Angela Duckworth’s related philosophy on the importance of “grit,” shared via a TED talk in 2013[2] served as a rapid-propulsion catalyst for getting these paired concepts into the public eye.

Duckworth’s research indicated that what she dubbed “grit” – a combination of perseverance and passion – is the number one indicator of future success. This flew in the face of the commonly understood importance of intelligence and talent, and thus, fit neatly hand-in-glove with Dweck’s work on growth mindset.

The concept of “grit” exploded in education circles and rapidly became a mandatory buzzword. It stands to reason that teachers would naturally embrace this concept. The ability to cultivate student perseverance as a way to increase success provides hope for struggling students, and a construct through which we can understand the importance of increasing engagement and stamina in children.

Duckworth directly credits Dweck with having the best insight into how teachers can instill growth mindset, and by extension, grit, in their students.

In Mindset, Dweck outlines three strategies commonly implemented by students with a growth mindset when they approach a challenging task – essentially helping them to develop Duckworth’s concept of “grit.”

  • Keep trying (sustained effort)
  • Attempt a new strategy
  • Ask for help

But the ultimate question remains – how can teachers instruct and reinforce these practices? And how can we avoid inadvertently setting students up for more failure and frustration by implying that they just simply have to “try harder?”

To answer that, I think there is a third critical piece of research – The infamous marshmallow study.

This study, conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Walter Mischel at Stanford University, examined the correlation between a child’s ability to delay gratification and better long-term life outcomes. In the study, young children were presented with a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel) and told that if they waited and didn’t eat the marshmallow, they would ultimately be given two marshmallows. The results indicated a strong relationship between the ability to delay gratification (not eat the marshmallow) and higher SAT scores, greater academic achievement, and lower BMI indexes in adulthood.[3]

Since self-control seems to be an underpinning factor in both delaying gratification and persevering through challenge, Duckworth’s grit work is arguably related to Mischel’s marshmallow study. However, it is a replication and extension of Mischel’s experiment that I think reveals the key missing piece. (I first learned of this new research through this article written by my friend and high school classmate, Andrew Sokatch.)

In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester recreated the marshmallow study with an additional variable – trust.[4] This version of the study included two sets of tests. Children were first given a box of used crayons and told that if they could wait to begin coloring, these crayons would be replaced with a box of brand-new crayons. After the required time length, half of the children who waited were given the promised new crayons, and half of the children were told that a mistake had been made and no new crayons existed. Then, like the original study, children were provided a marshmallow and told that if they could wait, they would be given two. The children who had been rewarded with the new crayons were able to wait a significantly longer period of time to earn the second marshmallow than were the children who had waited on new crayons, only to receive nothing.

I believe that this provides important insight into the work of Dweck and Duckworth. We know that poverty is a critical factor in the academic challenges that many students face. We know that poverty often brings with it instability and inconsistency –the archenemies of trust. If we accept that the development of grit and a growth mindset are tremendous indicators of success, and we connect that to an ability to exert self-control, then we can readily see the direct connection in a student’s ability to trust in the environment, and in the adults in charge of that environment, with a student’s ability to succeed. And we then know where it is we have to begin. With trust.

When I began teaching growth mindset about five years ago, I hoped that concepts like “perseverance,” “strong-mindedness,” and “asking for help” would become common parlance among my students. But I never would have guessed that courage and bravery would be part of that. Grit and growth mindset are avenues to success, but what I didn’t yet understand when I introduced this idea was that before students can even begin down this path, they have to be able risk error. They have to be able to trust.

Learning is a risky endeavor. Learning requires mistakes – sometimes public ones.   To learn, we must have courage, and we must be brave. For many students, it is much easier to avoid potential failure, to hide, to give up – the antithesis of grit — than it is to take the risk of making a mistake in order to learn and grow, in order to succeed.

Learning is an act of courage. My students remind me of this every day:

“Growth mindset has affected me strongly. I have struggled with many things that no person my age should go through. By powering through it, it has changed me in ways I didn’t know I could change. I have changed into a better person, and a very strong-minded one.” – Caden

“Grit means to keep trying – like in math we are knowledgeable to answer the questions given, and we all encourage each other to do better. I get gritty in language arts and in math because all of the hard problem in math and all the essays we have to do, but as a result, it pushes me farther, and I am determined to be successful because of my teachers. My teachers show us step by step to make us understand, and when I learn something new, I get excited and want to do more. [It] gave me a lot of courage to change and do new things.” — Dahlia

As teachers, our very first task it to get our students to trust us. And the more unstable and inconsistent students’ previous experiences have been, the more difficult it will be to establish trust. There is no substitute, and there are no shortcuts. The only way to establish trust is to uphold your promises, create a safe space, and to keep showing up again and again and again. Students have to believe that you’ll follow through on what you say, that mistakes are okay (and even encouraged), and that you will be there for them on both the good and the bad days.

Trust is a bit of a magic elixir, for once students trust, they can exhibit courage and be brave. They can risk making mistakes. They can face challenges and not lose faith – the essence of grit.

Shauna’s transformation into a “gritty” student did not occur overnight, and it would be inaccurate to say that it is complete, but it is remarkable. Over the course of two years, and through tremendous amounts of coaxing, modification of assignments, and a focus on growth mindset, Shauna has been able to conquer her fear of failure in math – to have courage and to be brave. This, in turn, has allowed her to learn. It would be inaccurate to tell you that she has become a brilliant math student. She remains the most challenged learner in my math classroom, and she still has days where she simply gives up, but these are becoming fewer and farther between. More often than not, she is one of the students with their hand raised ready to answer a question, and sometimes now, she is the student begging to be able to show the class how to work through a given problem.

When students can be brave and risk failure long enough to witness their own success, they can then begin to believe in their own ability to succeed– to persevere and “be gritty,” to develop a growth mindset. And we know that growth mindset leads to greater success. And hasn’t that been the goal all along?

Developing growth mindset and grit is a process. There is no such thing as, “Make Every Kid Gritty in These 6 Easy Steps That Will Work the First Time!”

However, there are some strategies that can help students develop growth mindset.

  • Directly instruct the concepts of growth mindset and grit.
  • Change your language to reinforce effort, not intelligence. I found this was easy to do for students experiencing challenges, but quite difficult for students who were demonstrating high-performance.
  • Find ways to incorporate student-friendly language shifts in the classroom, and encourage students to embrace them.
  • Normalize mistakes. I often tell my students, “If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning.” Or as Dweck says, “So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, ‘Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!’”[5]
  • Don’t get so caught up in looking for proficiency that you miss growth – and don’t let your students do this either. Deliberately draw attention to their gains, and remind them that this is a direct result of their effort and engagement.

[1] Dweck, Carol. “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Carol Dweck: The Power of Believing That You Can Improve | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve>.

[2] Duckworth, Angela Lee. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” Angela Lee Duckworth: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Apr. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance>.

[3] “Delaying Gratification.” Science 306.5695 (2004): 369l. American Psychological Association. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

[4] Sokatch, Andy. “On Not Eating the Marshmallow: It’s Not (just) the Kids; It’s the Context.”Medium. N.p., 01 May 2016. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://medium.com/@asokatch/on-not-eating-the-marshmallow-its-not-just-the-kids-its-the-context-2687855c4fd1#.ftqr96ahm>.

[5] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. London: Robinson, an Imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2017. Print.

 

Flow: Getting beyond gamification and badges in the classroom

It is that moment we live for as teachers. There is an energy in the room, students engaged in their work, with very little unfocused conversation, or perhaps no talking at all. Maybe students are eagerly calling the teacher over to examine their final product, or they are so immersed in their work that the teacher has become merely an observer. Or perhaps it is a classroom seminar, and the students are fascinated by the core question, pondering over possibilities. The bell rings. Students groan, “Aww, man, do we have to go?” “It’s that time already?”

It’s a narwhal moment. That is, a moment that exists, but is rarely seen in the factory model classroom where teachers hand out one assignment after the next, and then a bell rings to dismiss one group to make room for the next. Students have reached a state of optimal concentration. Immersed completely in their work, they have lost track of time, and perhaps even where they are. They are in a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (me’-hi chick-sent-me’-hi) calls “flow”.

It is not a rare phenomenon. Athletes, students, artists, and professionals of all sorts can experience this. Children can easily find this place when they are playing or learning a new skill. Young children paint with water and brushes on a summer sidewalk, see their art disappear, then trace and retrace the strokes of the brush. They perfect the moves with ever-circling, ever-delicate changes in how they hold the brush, or twisting the bristles with the angle of their wrist, each pass similar to the last, but slightly more perfect in the eyes of our budding expert. Then, suddenly, the motion mastered, they move on. Or less optimally, they are pulled away by parents with schedules too busy to allow  the perfection of brush strokes, and their flow is broken by the business of the life of their household.

These moments, when they occur in the classroom, leave educators energized for hours or even days. It provides a “teacher’s high” that is far more effective at creating an innate desire to teach than our paychecks.

Why are these narwhal moments of deep concentration, where a person is so in the flow that they lose track of time and space, so rare in the classroom? And how can we create this flow more readily? There is an answer, and the tools for creating a space where it happens more readily are in the hands of teachers.

A hot trend in classroom engagement these days is “gamification”. Hoping to capture or perhaps replicate the intense fascination some of our students have with video games – losing hours in front of screens mastering delicate moves of the hand and wrist not unlike our sidewalk artist above – teachers are turning to technology to help students keep score of their work and even earn awards called badges for completing assignments. These are artificial attempts to emulate the very real and reproducible experience of “flow”. Flow is not gamification, exactly, though it does involve bringing parameters to the classroom that we most commonly associate with gameplay.

In his book Flow, Csikszentmihaly gathers other people’s descriptions of what he calls “optimal experience”:

    a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. (p. 97)

That is what we want in the classroom. So let’s break down that description he provides, and see what we can do in the classroom to make it happen.

 

A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand.

The chart used to describe flow shows the y axis as the challenge, and the x axis as the learner’s skill level. As long as they are matched, a person can experience flow. Dancing, hitting a tennis ball, reading a book, learning an instrument, constructing a model – all activities are susceptible to this model. If the challenge outstrips the skill, a student becomes anxious, agitated or frustrated, and is likely to quit, or to certainly fall out of flow. If the task is too simple, and their skill level exceeds the challenge, the learner becomes bored or worse.

Matching the challenge to a student’s skill level increases the chances of achieving flow.

What can we do to match a student’s skill level with the challenges at hand? Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky described this area just beyond a person’s current skill set as their “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD (often pronounced “Zo-ped”). He describes a learner in this state as rapt in attention, and likely to even be verbalizing their thought process – talking out loud to guide themselves through a challenge. A student who is zo-pedalling their way through a challenging task looks a lot like a student in “flow”. Striving at the edge of their skill set, they are talking themselves through the finer points of the task. Vygotsky was observing one aspect of flow, life in the channel between anxiety where the challenge was too great for their skills, and ennui, where the challenge was too little to engage their interest.

So first, we have to know where a student is in regard to specific skills or objectives. Detailed testing, or close grading of student work, can provide the necessary level of insight.  Better than assessment, careful observation can give a teacher the clearest picture of a student’s development of targeted and necessary skills. In an era of online tests and automated grading and feedback, a clipboard and a well-constructed observation chart is still the most powerful observation tool available. A trained professional educator remains the most sophisticated data collection tool in our schools. With the information we gather, we can provide targeted coaching in the student’s ZPD. Is the student struggling with capitalization? Specific practice in capitalization is needed, not writing another 5 paragraph essay. Is the problem with borrowing numbers in subtraction? Let’s target those skills.

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines many examples of small geographical areas that suddenly produce a pool of great talent, with most of his examples coming in athletic talent. In each case, the practice that those athletes are doing is specific and targeted on key skills of a large puzzle. An example from his book is of a group of soccer players who mastered the intricate footwork to win one-on-one challenges on the field. They practiced by playing an indoor, small-room version of the game that depended entirely on mastering this close-action ball control. These athletes were playing a modified version of the game, working in their ZPD, while mastering a talent that can be a pivotal difference in a soccer match.

We can do this for our students, giving them practice on a skill they are mastering. We can also allow them to self-select work just “above” or just “below” where we think they are. They will almost always make the right decision for themselves, if we would let them. The Montessori method of instruction allows students access to shelfwork that is beautiful and engaging, and to which students can return again and again. A student may return to a beadboard to practice multiplication and understanding the relationships of groups of ten. Another may return to a book that is technically below their reading level, followed by their engagement and curiosity to investigate another aspect of the reading that is not determined by the book’

 

A goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing

Well, one would think the modern classroom would be the very model of this description. We are asked to emphasize specific standards, micromanaging and micro-reporting results from testing with information on specific objectives and strands mastered. We have online gradebooks that allow the student and parent to peer inside the gradebook. Here one sees the making of a transparent classroom with everyone fully aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.

In too many cases, students report their homework as “read these pages”, or “do those problems.” Students still describe work as the task, and not the skill to be learned. More targeted work might ask students reading the same novel to complete different work based on their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one student would be asked to gather information about a specific character, to learn how the author used actions and dialogue to reveal their true nature, while another student would be examining similes and metaphors for their impact on the reader and what they revealed about the action of the book. This work could be scaffolded based on a student’s skill level, and in fact could be worded in such a way that students could do similar work in different novels as their skill level and reading level increased.

We have the tools to have this kind of conversation, and yet we too seldom have it. We have not done a good enough job drawing the students in to conversations about their progress acquiring specific skills. In fact, it is a conversation we often are ill-equipped to have.

This is a daunting task. Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted an elementary grade card that reported not merely a letter grade for student performance, but instead gave parents a detailed list of skills and where their child was in mastering them. It came to its demise rather quickly, somewhere between the questions from the parents of “but how is my child really DOING?” and frustration with printing a 3 to 5 page report card for each child 8 times a year.

That was likely not the answer. So what about standardized test results?

For reasons entirely out of our control, our students are forced to sit through hours of standardized testing each year. If we then ignored the actual, meaningful data this effort generated, it would be us, and not the state, who was wasting the students’ time.

This year, Gamble Montessori looked closely at our AIR test (the current state graduation test) results at our instructional leadership team meeting. The scores were poor, in almost every measure. It was a shocking departure from years of success on the preceding tests, the PARCC (which had been discarded by the state after one year of use) and the Ohio Graduation Test. It was stomach-turning. However, we reasoned that since our students might likely be taking these tests for years to come, and would spend hours engaged, AND we got somewhat detailed strand information back, it made sense to focus on shoring up our weaknesses.

Guided by academic coaches, a specific role in Cincinnati Public Schools used to support principals in helping improve teaching in their building, we looked at our math and reading data. With additional input from our math and English teachers, we then chose a strand, a somewhat narrowed set of related standards, in which to focus. Then our teams built 90 day plans of action to focus on those areas, with a hope to see improvement in our next semester’s data.

This kind of conversation is becoming more common at Gamble and other schools.

“But Jack, this blog is ostensibly totally against standardized testing, and now you are talking about using test results to guide instruction.”

Much like I might use a student conflict to teach students about how to avoid conflict, there is no inherent crime in making the most of a bad situation. We are required to give the tests. We are evaluated by them. They determine a student’s qualification to graduate. Those things are true.

We can take the information provided and make it part of our dialogue. If we combined our close observations with our homework and classwork results, and the information from the tests, we could more clearly articulate where each student was and where they needed to be in every key strand. The result would be students with a clear understanding of our expectations. If we then made clear where they needed to get and gave them feedback and personalized work, the student would feel more supported, and less burdened, by homework.

Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to make acquiring specific standards a bit more fun. You can move a student’s ZPD further up the skill set by asking them to do something faster, or with fewer words, or in partners, or by evaluating others’ work with a rubric. Gamification attempts to meet this need, but can often do it in an awkward and inauthentic way, by tracking the number of attempts or minutes on task over time. Gamification seems to think that placing a screen in front of a student creates engagement, or that learning can only happen if the teacher can make something fun, or if a tangible reward is given at the end. This can be motivating to some, but the artificiality of it will quickly lose its luster for the student who is used to playing video games with plots developed by Hollywood screenwriters and animated with teams of technical artists. A teacher can certainly try this out as a way to engage students in a particular activity. The goal is to make the objectives clear to students, and provide a structured classroom environment where they have “clear clues” about how they are performing on the specific task and in the class overall. However, expecting this to stand in the place of authentic conversations about learning about topics of interest to students is short-sighted and damaging.

 

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. 

Maria Montessori once described an optimal classroom experience of her own, exclaiming, “the students are now working as if I did not exist.” Her careful preparation of the classroom environment, filled with work that engaged students by meeting them just beyond their current capability, allowed this to happen. Eager students concentrating on number beads or parts of speech work, or perhaps carefully coloring an illuminated letter with precisely sharpened colored pencils, perhaps a student with her face wrenched in concentration … AND THEN A BELL RANG.

 

And everyone packed up and left.

The factory model has a way of doing that. Of pulling the rug out from under a teachable moment. There is great happiness in the narwhal moment of disappointment at the end of the bell. The hidden sorrow in the anecdote above, where interrupted students express surprise and shock that time has passed so quickly, is that the interruption happens at all.

You’re having a narwhal moment. Don’t you want more of them?

A teacher can help concentration happen by creating longer and longer blocks of productive work time in her classroom. Clear rules about entry and exit procedures are necessary. A student knowing where to put completed work, and how to silently request the teacher’s attention with work, is a student who can focus on developing in the standards.

There is no harm in taking days at the start of the year to teach these very discreet skills. How can a student request a bathroom pass without interrupting others? Where is the stapler? What do I do if the stapler is not where it should be? No such skill is too small to teach so a student may master the use of their time and space, without interrupting others.

Providing work that is repeated and familiar, such as specific rules for highlighting and notetaking for every text in every subject, prevent confusion about how to interact with each new text. Utilizing blocks of time for extended big work, like writing and editing, or silent reading, with provisions for silent transition into other work as a child’s individual concentration shifts, can help stimulate concentration.

Many aspects of the conditions of flow in the classroom are within a teacher’s purview. How we communicate the work and allow for students to articulate it, and how we match specific tasks to a student’s level of performance are choices we make each day while planning lessons. How to structure feedback and goals and rules are part of our annual planning for opening days, starts of new semesters, quarters, or even the day after midterms.

There is an interesting caveat to all this talk of what is possible. Csikszentmihalyi also described conditions under which a person will be unable to achieve flow. Clearly from the examples, a student who is challenged beyond their ability will become anxious, and be unable to perform well at all. A child who is asked to do a task that is too simple for them, will fall into boredom or ennui, and quickly seek activities to become a distraction to himself and others in the classroom. (Being too challenged can mask itself as ennui. Beware the student and parent who assert that disruptive behavior is happening because the child is too smart for the work they have been given. This allegation is often made without either parent or student providing any proof that the work can be completed at an acceptable level!)

Flow can never be achieved, he argues, in a person who is self-conscious, self-centered, or experiencing anomie (a breakdown in the connection with societal values) or alienation. In these cases, a child must be brought back into a sense of community. Only here, where a student feels a sense of belonging to the larger group, can he experience the blend of challenge and success that makes time disappear.

You can conquer that by…   AND THEN A BELL RANG.