To Encourage Creativity in Kids, Ask Them: ‘What if’?

Photo

Matt Richtel teaches children the “what if” exercise he used to write his book “Runaway Booger.”CreditHarperCollins Publishers; illustration by Lee Wildish

I was in a second-grade classroom recently reading from my new children’s book, “Runaway Booger.” After I finished, and the giggling subsided, several students asked a version of the same question: Why did you write about a humongous ball of mucus?

It was the question I’d hoped for.

I was using the reading session, at the teacher’s request, to get the children to think about creativity. Where does creativity come from? Are there tricks they can use to be more creative, or, for that matter, that parents and educators can instill?

It’s a subject I think about a lot, as a writer of newspaper articles, mysteries and nonfiction books, a syndicated comic strip and music. (It is sad but true: To accompany the booger book, I wrote a rock anthem called “Don’t Pick Your Nose.”) Scholars who study creativity say that stoking it involves helping children strike a balance between two dichotomous tools: the whimsy and freedom of a wandering mind, with the rigidity of a prepared one.

We need to help them be both “sensitive and assertive,” in the words of John Dacey, professor emeritus of education at Boston College. “Sensitivity means being open to new ideas, and very laid back,” he explained. Assertiveness doesn’t just mean being bold enough to express the idea but having enough experience and judgment to feel true authority about its value.

It means understanding a genre’s structure and form. That can take hard work, and years, but to Dr. Dacey, merely having a good idea doesn’t qualify as genuine creativity until it is matched with execution and follow-through.

“People think creativity is inspiration,” Dr. Dacey said, “but it’s mainly perspiration.”

To help the second graders inspire and perspire, I pulled out a red marker, and on a whiteboard I wrote two words: What if.

I explained to them that these two words are a kind of secret tunnel into the world of new ideas. In fact, I told them, I only came up with the booger story after asking myself: What if a family picked their noses so much that they create a monstrous booger? And what if the snot rocket rolled out the window and gained so much steam it threatened to roll over the town? And what if the whole story rhymed?

“Your turn,” I said to the class. “Who wants to give me their own version of ‘what if?’”

Before I relate some “what if” responses I’ve gotten from various classes, I’ll note that Dr. Dacey thinks the “what if” exercise is a great way to encourage a laid-back, nonjudgmental approach to open-ended thinking. Plus, this exercise helps children generate lots of potential ideas, and research shows that truly creative people tend to be idea factories. (Lest I take too much credit — or any — I recall coming across a related idea in a book about fiction writing called no less than What If?”.)

A few days after I visited second grade, I tried the “what if” exercise with a kindergarten class.

“What if you sat on a toilet and it took you to Egypt?” said a curly-haired boy sitting in the middle of the rug. Giggles ensued until I said, “Fantastic! Who can use ‘what if’ to say what happened next in the toilet story?”

“And then you sat on the toilet and it flushed you to outer space?” said another boy.

More hands shot up from eager contributors. I called on a girl sitting near the back of the rug.

“And what if you took a giraffe elevator from outer space, and it brought you back?” she offered.

This, it dawned on me, was a significant moment (even though I’m not sure what a giraffe elevator is). The importance of the suggestion was that it hinted at the other key aspect of creativity, namely, having experience and judgment to turn an idea into a creation.

What the girl was suggesting was that she wanted to create some resolution — to get the toilet-traveler back home. In some sense, she was rounding the idea into a story, a structure. Was she lucky, or brilliant, preternatural? Most likely, according to the scholars I spoke to, she had picked up the logic of life and form by being in the world and interacting with books, movies and other story forms. In fact, some scholars think that merely being engaged with the world is enough to learn structure, and that formal training is overrated. But not all agree with this.

KH Kim, a professor of innovation and creativity at the College of William & Mary and the author of “The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation,” for instance, believes that people can be truly creative only after they’ve had 10 years of real experience studying and playing with a given genre, say music, books or art. Along the way, though, she says students should practice creative flights so they can develop inspiration and perspiration in lock-step.

Ultimately, Dr. Dacey offered a nifty measure for how to know whether we’ve helped our child come up with something truly creative. When we see or hear or read the end product of true creativity, he said, we will experience four emotions: surprise, stimulation, satisfaction and savoring.

To my chagrin, there was not a word in his definition about being grossed out by the prospect of a massive town-threatening mucus balloon. Well, that’s O.K. I’ve got more weird ideas where that came from. Hopefully, your children will, too.

Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?

A few years ago, I was working with a group of student teachers. One of them—we’ll call him Eric—was teaching seventh-grade social studies. His class was studying ancient Greece. The standards for grade 7 required teachers to address concepts like the government, economics, and culture of this era. For his 5-day unit, Eric was going to focus on the “culture” part.

On the first day of the unit, which Eric developed with his cooperating teacher, students would read the chapter of their textbook that swept through three centuries’ worth of ancient Greek culture in about five pages. Then they’d write answers to a set of end-of-chapter questions. On days 2 through 4, students would create their own Grecian urns by wrapping balloons with papier-mâché. Once the urns were dry, students would paint them in a similar style to that of the Greeks, incorporating something personally meaningful as the main artistic feature. Finally, they would present their urns to the class. On day 5, they would be given a quiz asking them to match 10 vocabulary terms, such as comedy, tragedy, urn, and Olympics, to their definitions.

Feeling more than a bit skeptical, I asked Eric to show me the standards his unit was aligned with. He rustled through some paperwork, then pointed to this language from the state standards: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of culture by exploring cultural elements (e.g., beliefs, customs/traditions, languages, skills, literature, the arts) of diverse groups and explaining how culture served to define groups in world civilizations prior to 1500 A.D. and resulted in unique perspectives.

I read this out loud to Eric, then asked him to show me exactly how his plans taught or measured the standard.

For a long moment, he said nothing.

Finally, he shrugged and told me the unit was basically what his cooperating teacher had “always done for ancient Greece.” She’d told him the urn project was really fun, and that the kids loved it. The only problem was, it had nothing to do with the standards. Draping wet, gluey newspaper around a balloon has nothing to do with deepening one’s understanding of societies and cultures.

All Hands-On Tasks Are Not Created Equal

I wish Eric’s story was just a rare example, but in my work with student teachers, as a classroom teacher myself, in my many years as a student, and now as a parent, I’ve seen far too many “Grecian Urns”: projects that look creative, that the teacher might describe as hands-on learning, interdisciplinary teaching, project-based instruction, or the integration of arts or tech, but that nonetheless lack any substantial learning for students. What’s worse, because these activities are often time-consuming, they take away from other tasks that would give students the chance to wrestle with more challenging stuff.

In their groundbreaking book Understanding by Design, Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins describe this problem as the Sin of Activity-Oriented Design. Instead of focusing on the desired learning outcomes, this approach merely seeks out tasks that might be fun, or at least keep kids busy: “The activities, though fun and engaging, do not lead anywhere intellectually. (They) lack an explicit focus on important ideas and appropriate evidence of learning.”

To illustrate this, Wiggins and McTighe describe a 3rd grade unit on apples. In this two-week unit, students read about Johnny Appleseed, paint pictures of apples, do math problems that involve apples, write apple-themed stories, make applesauce, and take a trip to a local orchard. Students probably enjoyed all of these activities, and it’s likely that both teachers and students were charmed by how cleverly the theme was woven into so many different content areas. Throughout the unit, students probably seemed engaged, the classroom was full of colors and productivity and maybe even collaboration, but what valuable learning actually took place?

Let’s move our lens to the higher grades. Here, the Grecian Urns might involve no crafts at all, but still force students to ride along curricular tangents that, rather than inspire and ignite a passion for learning, lead to dead ends.

Take the math and social studies teachers who decide to co-teach a two-week unit on famous mathematicians. Math and history, right? Students spend most of the first week on computers, researching the mathematicians’ birthplaces, families, deaths, and contributions to the field (which most students simply copy, because the actual mathematical concepts are over their heads…how many eighth graders do you know who can explain the Fibonacci sequence?). They spend another three class periods creating PowerPoints or Prezis full of facts about these obscure pioneers in math, complete with neat-o animations and stomach-turning transitions, and another three days presenting these to the class…

For what?

None of the kids got any better at math, nor did their thirst for history grow. But to someone walking by, maybe even to an administrator doing a formal observation, this unit would look kind of amazing. Students doing online research! Cooperative learning! Technology! Interdisciplinary study!

No!

These teachers misunderstood and misapplied the concepts of interdisciplinary study, hands-on learning, and tech integration, and two weeks of precious instructional time were wasted because of it.

How to Spot a Grecian Urn

It could be argued that all lessons have some educational value, that any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning. With that in mind, think of “Grecian Urn” as more of a relative term than an absolute one: Few lessons will be pure Grecian Urns; almost any lesson will probably have some arguable educational value. Far more lessons will simply contain elements that are Grecian Urn-ish; we can make these lessons better if we try to minimize those elements.

The best way to identify a Grecian Urn is to look at a task and ask this question: Does it consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact? If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn. And it may need to go.

Here are some more specific ways to spot the Grecian Urns in your teaching, and what you could do to replace them:

1. Excessive Coloring or Crafting

If your lesson requires more time coloring, cutting, or pasting than meaningful work with the content you’re trying to teach, it might be a Grecian Urn. If you are a primary teacher and students need to develop their fine motor skills, then these activities have a clear place in your classroom. Everyone else should use these tasks more sparingly.

This doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning. If not, there may be a way to cut down the time it takes. Suppose you want students to draw illustrations of vocabulary words. Adding visuals can work wonders to boost memory, so this is an instructionally sound decision. But is it necessary for these illustrations to be colored? On posterboard? Or hanging from a mobile? Would a simple line drawing beside each word on a regular sheet of paper serve the same purpose?

Now if your goal is true integration of the arts into your curriculum, I have two articles to recommend to you. Both of these really dig into what it looks like when teachers use art to really enhance students’ learning: read this post on arts integration from MindShift and this one from Edutopia to learn more about what this looks like.

2. Excessive “Neat-O” Tech

This is the tech equivalent of item #1: If students are spending lots and lots of time searching for images, making digital drawings, adding animations or effects to slideshows, adding sound effects or special titles to podcasts and videos, you are probably heading into Grecian Urn territory.

The key phrase here is lots and lots of time: Our students will absolutely benefit from learning how to combine text with images, manipulate presentations to make them more interesting, and make use of all the digital tools at their disposal. But when a student burns two hours listening to sound clips so he can make a photo of Langston Hughes zoom onto his PowerPoint slide to the sound of screeching brakes, well, he’s probably not doing much thinking about the Harlem Renaissance.

So when you’re assigning work that requires the creative use of tech, be mindful of how much time students are putting into the bells and whistles. Look at your rubric and make sure you haven’t required too many of these bells and whistles to begin with. And if possible, see if they can make the bells and whistles relevant: If students want sound in their slideshow about the Harlem Renaissance, have them add a Duke Ellington song, music that’s actually from that era, rather than a funny sound effect.

3. Low-Level Thinking

Most of the thinking in a Grecian Urn task is on the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In other words, the task appears to be creative, but the primary academic work is rearranging and regurgitating basic facts or definitions.

Let’s look at two possible assignments for students to demonstrate their understanding of the Food Pyramid. In one class, the teacher has students re-create the pyramid as a hanging mobile. They write all the parts of the pyramid on pieces of colored paper and hang those papers onto a hanger or something. They might also be asked to draw or cut out magazine pictures of foods that represent items within each part of the pyramid. All of this work is at the Remember and Understand level of Bloom’s. Students are more or less defining stuff, and yet the task still takes an awfully long time to complete. Grecian Urn.

But what’s the point of teaching the Food Pyramid? Don’t we want students to learn it so they can make healthy eating choices? Here’s a different assignment: Have students write up a 3-day eating plan that applies the principles of the Pyramid. Sure, they can draw a border around it if they like. This will take five minutes. They can choose a cool font for the headings; that’s 10 minutes. But shouldn’t the real time-consuming work be put into deeply wrestling with the content itself?

4. Big Points for “Creativity”

An assignment might be a Grecian Urn if a significant part of the grade is based on “creativity” or “attractiveness.” And by the way, I’m a big design snob. I think presentation is important. But if more than 10 percent of a grade is based on these things—and I even think 10 percent is pushing it—we’re not measuring the learningthat’s supposed to be taking place.

The fix for this couldn’t be easier. Cut way back on the points you assign for creativity or attractiveness. And if you find that the projects you get don’t excite you because they are not colorful or pretty, it’s time to start planning projects that will excite you with their content.

5. Word Search

If the task is a word search, there’s a very strong chance it is a Grecian Urn. Some argument could probably be made for how word searches reinforce letter recognition in the very early grades. Fine. But if some form of letter recognition, decoding skill, or language development is not the curricular intent of your word search, then your word search is probably a Grecian Urn. If you are a teacher who doesn’t have time to do things like project-based learning or Genius Hour, but you have time to make word searches and have students spend time doing them? Drop the word searches and you just bought yourself and your students at least 30 extra minutes per week.

What Then?

So you have identified a couple of Grecian Urns in your lessons. What do you do about them?

One option is to cut them out. Just move those lessons out of your plan book and replace them with activities that will actually result in learning. Look again at your goals: What do you want students to know or be able to do by the time they’re done? And what tasks will help them get there?

The other option is to revise them. Let’s go back to Eric and his urns. Maybe instead of using up three class days on all that wet newspaper business, he could have students draw their urns on paper. He could build the historical relevance by providing students with images of typical Greek urns, have them choose one, then draw their own urn with images that parallel those in the original, but with a modern twist. So if the urn they choose depicts a battle, they might draw something on their own that represents a significant war or other “battle” that has occurred in the last century. Students could then add captions to their drawings, pointing out these details and the thinking behind them.

If you really like your Grecian Urn activity, you don’t have to completely drop it. But if you can tweak it to make it take less time and build in more curricular relevance, you’ve made it a lot less “urn-y” and, in turn, given it a more rightful place in your classroom.

The Fun and Sanity Loopholes

Having said all this, I think it’s important to note that not all classroom activities have to have a clearly defined, rigorous academic purpose. There will be times when a task that would be called a Grecian Urn in one context serves a completely different purpose in another.

The Fun Loophole
Building relationships with students, creating a family-like atmosphere, and making the classroom a place students love to come has incredible value. If I didn’t believe this, I never would have written something called When a Principal Whips and Nae-Naes. Some things should just be done for fun. If students absolutely love playing with the drawing app on their iPads, make that an option for free time. If students want to create a collage as a thank-you gift for a departing student, by all means let them.

The Sanity Loophole
At other times, you just need your students to be still and quiet. Maybe you’re coming down with a stomach bug or you just got bad news over the phone. Maybe the morning assembly left you with only 6 minutes of class time and you know you’re not going to get anything done. Maybe they have driven you to the absolute brink and you’re about to start throwing things. The best teachers in the world have days when they just can’t be on. At those times, good old-fashioned busywork is like manna from heaven. That’s when you have them color. That’s when you pull out the word searches.

When used for fun or sanity, these tasks are no longer Grecian Urns; they’re more like classroom management strategies. The important thing is to know the difference.

 

That’s what I tried to teach Eric as we revised his unit. We had him use some graphic organizer activities, where students did side-by-side comparisons of ancient Greek and modern-day cultural elements. Students then completed a lengthy questionnaire, where they took on the identity of a person in Ancient Greece. Each student chose a social rank, age, and gender, and wrote about what their life was like. Some questions asked them to describe their feelings about other people in their community and about social issues. They had to draw a few sketches of some of the artifacts in their daily life and describe why these artifacts were important to them. Once all students completed these questionnaires, they worked together to arrange them on a wall in a way that represented their social hierarchy.

The activity took three days. Students collaborated, used technology to research their person’s life, and even used a bit of color for their sketches. In the end, they understood a lot more about ancient Greek culture and about how culture influences who we are.

And they did it all without a single strip of gluey newspaper. ♦

What the Heck Is Restorative Justice?

With the right training and support, restorative justice can prove more effective than traditional discipline measures in building a stronger school community.

I’m going to simplify the new school management term du jour (that’s actually been around for awhile): restorative justice. Google the term and you’ll see restorative justice is defined as “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” It may sound like a term used in a prison. (It is, actually.)

But let’s state it in the way it is being used in our schools. In sum, restorative justice helps a student to own what she/he did, make it right for those hurt or affected, and involve the community in helping both the victim and the offender. Restorative justice acknowledges that those who do wrong need healing as well.

The myth is that restorative justice replaces harsher consequences. The truth is that restorative justice represents the steps that lead up to more harsh consequences, should they be necessary.

The Process of Restorative Justice

Sometimes in educational discipline we whip out the cannons of suspension first. But with the right training and support from all stakeholders, restorative justice can prove much more effective in building a stronger school community. And, let’s face it, the challenge of making amends is a task that, for many kids, is far harder than just staying home for three days.

According to Howard Zehr, a recognized founding father of restorative justice, the concept is based on three pillars:

  1. Harms and needs
  2. Obligation (to put right)
  3. Engagement (of stakeholders)

In other words:

1. Empathy for all and by all. There must be awareness that while harm was done to a victim — and possibly a larger community — there may also have been past harm done to the accused as well, and that harm may be a factor in his or her behavior.

2. A mumbled “sorry” is not enough. There must be a process, a moderated one, which helps the accused somehow right the wrong that was committed.

3. Everyone is involved in the healing. There must include a dialogue with all parties — victim, offender, and even community — in order to genuinely move on and have an impact.

How About the Term Restorative Justice?

While I think the strategy of restorative justice is one that many schools should be using, I think the term isn’t great. I don’t have anything against the individual words per se. After all, the words restorative and justice sound lovely by themselves. When I hear the word restorative, I think about building back one’s strength after a sickness. I think about honoring one’s dignity and helping to rebuild what was taken away. When I think about justice, I think about fairness, equitable opportunities, and using the strength of a system to stand up for what is right.

But somehow, when you put the two words together, they take on a different sound that does a disservice to the term’s intention. Why use such a loaded term? I think — and I’m just musing here — that it has to do with critics of “softer” discipline. I believe restorative justice is a term meant to instill toughness, while really meaning empathy and using more compassionate steps before utilizing more stringent ones.

But, the fact is, restorative justice is a vital component in any larger discipline plan. Schools must have strategies whereby they help students work out their differences and their arguments. Schools must play a part in helping students understand why they do things and how to think beyond their emotional impulses.

Restorative Justice Supports Student Brain Development

And this isn’t just fluffy thinking here. We’re talking about brain development and acknowledging that when we ask students to make good decisions, their brains might not yet be wired to do what we are asking of them. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules or expectations. It doesn’t mean we don’t give consequences for not functioning within those rules. But it does mean that we must acknowledge that, as the book by the National Institute of Mental Health says, children’s brains are “still under construction.”

We know, for instance, that the part of the brain that houses impulse control is one of the last parts of the brain to become fully formed. And it doesn’t really finish its neural-evolution until the early 20s. We also know that poverty, hormones, andpoor nutrition and hunger can play a role in one’s brain development.

Heck, even a fight with your best friend can influence a decision that can put a kid on the naughty list. So for all of those reasons, we can’t assume “criminal” intentions of our students without providing the steps to help see them through the gloom that can simply be defined as childhood and adolescence.

Some, like me, may consider the term restorative justice a little harsh, but the goal of utilizing restorative justice before harsher methods of discipline is, for lack of a better word, just.

Ideas For Teaching With Cardboard in Makerspaces

Cardboard Creators: Reusing to Learn

October 25, 2016
Switching from high school science to middle and high school gifted students has reawakened that sometimes uncomfortable sense of discovery of new teaching, where so much seems imperfect … I’m working with the mantra of imperfection.

That’s a good mantra for my students as well. Some students have never swung a hammer, threaded a needle, or made a model that was not outlined on card stock. Common day experiences have been digitized in our world, and access to extra materials is extremely limited for others. My solution: create a makerspace in my classroom and offer design challenges students can do with little more than string, glue, and cardboard. Cardboard, my makerspace material of choice, is available in every home in America.

From mac and cheese boxes to a shoebox, cardboard is a material that puts students on a level playing field. It’s free. Students can cut thin stuff with scissors or score corrugated material with a pair of safety scissors, and tape is cheap enough that I can send a partial roll home with a student who needs it. Kids in families who cannot afford clay or craft kits or have little money for additional classroom supplies can still imagine something using materials that belong to them. That equals the playing field among students who ‘have not’ with students who ‘have’ adequate resources.

Sure, many educators say, but this is learning time. How can cardboard be transformed into learning strategies benefiting students across disciplines? Here are four sample cardboard projects to get started.

1. Three-dimensional thinking by building artifacts. While it may seem unusual to us as educators, take the time to ask students how many have been in a barn, gone to a zoo, camped in a tent, or taken care of an animal. So many readings describe experiences for which students have no background knowledge. For example, Finding Winnie, the winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal, is filled with unfamiliar venues. It took the illustrator, Sophie Blackall, over a year of research to visit all the places referenced in the book. My youngest middle school students are trying to build a single item model for just one scene in the book, ranging from an ocean liner to a tree to an antique car.

2. Imagining a Character. Middle school students love the idea of cosplay. Designing cardboard armor to imagine a warrior or superhero in a story is a simple way to use materials to portray their vision. The prompt can be as simple as, “Design a character to defend the castle.” It’s powerful to have the ability to create even an imperfect vision, instead of a project executed primarily by an overly helpful parent. Student processes are best remembered when the mistake or chance for failure becomes the driver for the learning.

3. Design thinking prototypes. The goal of design thinking is to solve a problem using a process of listening and developing empathy. Students struggle with this because they often design for themselves, rather than for a specific audience. After reading spooky stories that tie into both the Halloween season and the idea of justice, my students still struggled with the idea of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. How America is dealing with the idea of ‘liberty and justice for all’ is an example of a difficult idea. We used design thinking as the introduction to a conversation on empathy. Before the extended conversations at the end of the unit, I wanted to know if students could listen carefully. For one assignment, I asked them to set up a display prototype that combined scary elements from the stories and a building to contain a prisoner. While the artist of the classroom created a skeleton playing a trumpet by using scissors, this student didn’t follow directions, and his client (the teacher) was unsatisfied with the result. In contrast, the winner of the challenge created two ghosts out of cardboard shoulder pads and a turret out of thin cardboard, creating a powerful classroom lesson about utility versus perfection as well as listening.

4. Modeling. How does osmosis take place? What caused the creation of the universe? These are powerful questions, deep questions, and ones for which a teacher might not have the answer; however, they are just the type of questions my gifted students might ask. I pair students with an outside mentor via Skype or Google Hangouts by using the power of social media to find willing experts. To help students process difficult ideas, the Next Generation Science Standards recommend models as tools. Students often don’t think about making their own models unless teachers expose them to the idea as a strategy. Cardboard models are one way to go deeper in visible thinking and to augment visual notetaking. As described in Harvard’s Project Zero, initiatives like Agency by Design requires students to look closely at what they are doing to help discover complex ideas. When the students push back, I remind them of James Watson and Francis Crick, and how the cardboard models they created led to an understanding of DNA.

Tips on Creating a Cardboard Makerspace

  • Collect one or two plastic tubs of materials for your classroom.
    • In the first tub, start saving oddly-formed shapes of cardboard packaging from the IT department, or even toilet paper rolls. Corrugated cardboard is especially hard for younger students to cut. Resist the temptation to put full boxes in the box, or students will simply use them without modification (something I learned in this challenge).
    • In the second tub, place tape, string, and remnants of duct tape. I simply placed a box at my local church and asked for donations of half-used tape, white glue, and crochet thread.
  • Find donated materials. Reach out to close friends on Facebook, or check with a hardware store or custodian for unwanted materials.
  • Get a grant or donation from a big box store, or organize a campaign onDonorsChoose.
  • Build rubrics so students have a framework of expectations, but be willing to revise them as needed. The first creations may not be as rich as you expect, but this provides opportunities for further learning.

Building creations and making cardboard artists will also build memories in the journey of learning. Along the way, new skills and collaboration will help us become better learners.

How to Shift to a Student-Centered Approach in Parent-Teacher Conferences

EdSurge

By Mitch MosbeyMay 30, 2016

Shutterstock / Nolte Lourens

Data, expectations, report cards, goal-setting, learning objectives, and parent-teacher conferences. These are just some of the responsibilities of teachers. (And trust me—there’s much more where that came from.) While not the most appealing parts of the teaching profession, they are also necessary to show the growth of students.

But what if some of these responsibilities were taken off the teacher’s back and given to students? As classrooms shift from teacher-driven instruction to more student-centered learning, teachers have witnessed how powerful it is when students take control of their own learning.

To share their learning with others, students are setting goals, tracking their learning, compiling binders, and leading others through presentations in the form of student-led conferences. While this is a shift from parent-teacher conferences, where teachers are providing the information to families, more and more schools are seeing the positive outcomes when they put the student in control. Jered Pennington, principal at Amy Beverland Elementary in Indianapolis, IN, mirrors this view:

“In order to maximize students’ learning potential and success, key stakeholders must be fully invested in the process. With that said, why leave the most integral stakeholder, the student, out of the conversation?”

As Pennington goes onto say, “Student-led conferences provide a platform for students to serve as equal partners in the educational conversation,” and offer them an opportunity to “have a sound understanding of perceived strengths, challenges, qualitative/quantitative data, and desired learning goals.”

Why not help students to be the masters of their own data?

How to Prepare for a Student-Led Conference

First off, students start to compile a data binder at the beginning of the year. The binder is filled with assessments and work completed by the students, as well as student reflections.

Teachers might start out by having all students put in the same type of data, but over time, students will take more ownership of their binder after they begin to understand the process and the impact it can have on their learning. Once again, this is a reflection of the students as a learner, rather than the student as a data point. In my classroom, when having students set goals, I have them complete their own “Plan of Action” that states their goal, and then lays out how they want to achieve their goals. Over time, they independently decide on a specific plan-of-attack.

One of the most important parts of preparation is having students practice vocalizing their learning and explaining it to others. Sometimes, a sample script or bullet points help students first attempting student-led conferences. I have my students practice with different students in the class discussing their binders and then answering questions from their peers. This gives them confidence, knowing they are prepared for when family members and other adults are present.

What It Looks Like Day-Of

My school made the shift from Parent-Teacher Conferences to Student-Led Conferences a few years ago, and we still follow the 15-20 minute format that most teachers are already accustomed to in their schools.

This year, instead of the teacher driving the conversation, students were showing off their data binder. First off, students highlight some of their work that they are most proud of and explain the learning process. Then, they are reviewing data to show their growth thus far. And then, there are the goals—in fact, one of the most powerful moments is when students share their goals with family members. When a student is telling an adult how they want to be a better student, it is much more powerful than hearing it from their teaching.

What about the teacher?

Teachers are still present during the conferences, but only there for support. This is a shift from teachers having the typical “How do you think your child is doing?” and “Here are their strength…” and “Here’s what they can work on….” discussions. Teachers are there for one central purpose: to answer any misunderstandings, and further explain how they would support students in achieving their goals.

Don’t Stop At That One Fall Conference

As I reflect and plan for future years, I plan to have another conference towards the end of the school year to have students showcase why they are ready for the next grade level. Over time, it is very easy for teachers to simply stop setting goals with students, and following up on them after the student-led conferences. I’ll admit that when I first started it with these types of conferences, I sat down with the students and had great conversations—yet this slowly stopped, once the student-led conference took place. Hence, one fall conference isn’t enough.

Where Can You Learn More

Check out Twitter and be on the lookout for chats regarding students-led conferences. You can also check out various teacher blogs and websites. For those looking for a great book to read about the impact of student-centered learning, check out the book Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessmentby Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin.

For those that are trying to take things digital, there are more and more tools that support digital student portfolios online. My first grade students, for example, use a tool called Seesaw (@seesaw); Seesaw allows for my students to take photos and videos of student work, record voiceovers, write on photos to deepen their explanations, and import work from other apps. It also allows for great communication with parents because they can be alerted anytime students upload posts.

Seesaw is just one tool that teachers can explore. Other options includePadlet (which is a favorite of some of the intermediate classrooms at my school), apps such as Three Ring and Evernote, and other student website options like Weebly or Wix or blogging sites, such as Kidblog. While it might be beneficial when starting a digital portfolio to have students use the same tool, upper grades might like the option to select their own tools.

Onto you, educators. And if you’re still a bit reticent about taking that leap away from teacher-controlled conferences, I leave you with one final thought from Jered Pennington: “Traditional parent-teacher conferences may (or may not) lead to educational compliance, but student-led conferences lead to educational cooperation.”

Mitch Mosbey (@mitchmosbey) is a first grade teacher in Noblesville, Indiana at Promise Road Elementary.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Indiana). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

‘Brain-hostile’ education: how schools are failing adolescents

Here’s an interesting brain research based article that supports so much of what we’re doing at Sacred Heart – especially our concentration on student-centered learning.

The Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss September 26
When people talk about making sure that curriculum is “developmentally appropriate,” they are often talking about the work young children are given to do at school. Increasingly, in this era of standardized test-based school reform, very young children are being asked to do things — such as read and write and analyze — before many of them are able to it, and kids can feel like failures before they get to first grade. But it isn’t just young kids for whom developmentally appropriate material is vital.
Modern neuroscience is presenting revelations about how the brains of middle and high school students develop and how best to engage them, but, as the author of this post says, “Regrettably, these proactive practices in middle and high school appear to be the exception rather than the rule. In this post, educator Thomas Armstrong discusses how schools are ignoring what science is telling them about how older students learn — and how they can fix it.

Armstrong has been an educator for more than 40 years and is the executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. He is the author of sixteen books related to learning and human development, including his newest, “The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students,” from which this selection was excerpted.

By Thomas Armstrong

The last 15 years of neuroscience research on the adolescent brain reveals that it is still under construction and amenable to influence from the environment. While there are a wide range of factors that educators have no control over, the one place where educators can have a high impact on adolescent brain development is school. Students in the United States spend about 1,000 hours in school each year (not counting extracurricular activities and before-school, after-school, and summer programs). This time, which amounts to about 15 percent of students’ waking lives, presents a golden opportunity for educators to create instructional activities that can change brain functioning in positive ways.
My new book, “The Power of the Adolescent Brain,” presents “brain-friendly” strategies that secondary schools throughout the United States (and the world) are currently using that dovetail with the way the adolescent brain works. Regrettably, these proactive practices in middle and high school appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

Evidence has been mounting to suggest that too many secondary schools are “brain-hostile” at worst, and “brain-ignorant” at best in their use of outdated practices that fail to take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain. These practices might even be termed “brain-damaging” to the extent that they create stress, apathy, and resentment among students that negatively affect brain functioning.

A large-scale national survey of middle and high school students revealed that more than half of all 10th grade students were bored in class and less than half enjoyed being at school, while another survey of 14- to 15-year-olds revealed that only 33 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys were seen by their parents to be actively engaged in school. A 2013 national Gallup Student Poll found that 75 percent of elementary school students were actively involved and invested in school, while only 44 percent of high school students had the same level of engagement.

“If we were doing right by our students and our future,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, “these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.’’ Even students who appear engaged may in many cases just be going through the motions by providing teachers with responses that are least likely to cause them harm or exposure.

At a time when adolescents’ emotional brains are jacked up to the max, the middle and high school curriculum suddenly “gets down to business” and becomes emotionally flat in tone. This has only become more common during the last few years. One recent study revealed a strong pattern of emotional suppression in students’ relationships with teachers at urban high schools. The authors wrote:

As teachers come under increasing pressure to produce demonstrable student achievement gains because of newly developed teacher evaluation systems and enact challenging pedagogy because of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, they may be more likely to think about understanding and improving emotion related interactions as a distal goal—one that diverts time and energy from the primary task of fostering student learning.

Owing to challenges from interest groups and other factors, such as the “committee” authorship of most textbooks, the textbooks that dominate so much classroom time lack any real zip, as former U.S. Assistant Director of Education Diane Ravitch points out, referring to high school history textbooks: “There seems to be something in the very nature of today’s textbooks that blunts the edges of events and strips from the narrative whatever is lively, adventurous, and exciting.’’

At a time when the adolescent’s brain increasingly craves stimulation from peers, education becomes more teacher-centered, offering less small-group interaction and cooperative learning than elementary classrooms. In addition, teachers promote student embarrassment by posting students’ grades and test results for everyone to see, and ban or restrict social media that could facilitate interpersonal learning in the classroom.
At a point when students’ decision-making skills are at a critical stage of development and the prefrontal cortex is going through a process of fine-tuning, zero-tolerance discipline policies run roughshod over students’ capacities to learn from their mistakes. In addition, schools heap required courses on students to prepare them for college, some actually requiring students to declare a major or course of study in ninth grade or even earlier. This approach deprives students of opportunities to take electives that are interesting to them and that might lead to a vocation in adulthood.

During a point when students are entering the developmental stage of formal operational thinking and are able to engage more deeply in metacognition, the curriculum begins to devote more attention to lower-order skills, such as recall of facts, formulas, and details.

Finally, at a time when adolescents have a huge appetite for rewards, teachers start employing higher standards in judging student competence and tend to give lower grades than elementary school teachers.

It’s clear that substantial reform is necessary to align classroom and schoolwide practices with the mountain of research now available on how the adolescent brain develops. One professor has gone so far as to suggest that we need a Head Start program for adolescents.

The guiding principle in reforming secondary education should be to craft educational programs and instructional strategies that link the evolutionary advantages of the adolescent brain to socially appropriate and constructive learning outcomes . So, for example, although risk taking can lead the adolescent to engage in unsafe driving practices, it can also lead him or her to try out new, challenging activities that promote learning, such as a poetry slam.

As one 16-year-old commented after competing in a poetry slam, “It’s really scary. You’re nervous and shaking. Then afterwards you get that same feeling you get coming off a roller coaster. You want to go again.’’
Similarly, adolescents’ need for bonding with peers might propel them into membership in a violent gang—or it could drive them to get involved in a service learning project that benefits the whole community. The sensation-seeking behavior that can lead adolescents to drug abuse could alternatively be directed toward a highly engaging student-centered learning project. The reward-seeking behaviors that might lure teens into Internet addiction could be tapped through a game-based learning experience in the classroom.

What Kids Wish Their Teachers Knew

When Kyle Schwartz started teaching third grade at Doull Elementary School in Denver, she wanted to get to know her students better. She asked them to finish the sentence “I wish my teacher knew.”

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The responses were eye-opening for Ms. Schwartz. Some children were struggling with poverty (“I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework”); an absent parent (“I wish my teacher knew that sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom isn’t around a lot”); and a parent taken away (“I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was 3 years old and I haven’t seen him in six years”).

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The lesson spurred Ms. Schwartz, now entering her fifth teaching year, to really understand what her students were facing outside the classroom to help them succeed at school. When she shared the lesson last year with others, it became a sensation, with the Twitter hashtag “#iwishmyteacherknew” going viral. Other teachers tried the exercise and had similar insights. Many sent her their students’ responses.

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In her recently published book, “I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything For Our Kids,” Ms. Schwartz details how essential it is for teachers and families to be partners.

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“I really want families to know how intentional teachers are about creating a sense of community and creating relationships with kids,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Kids don’t learn when they don’t feel safe or valued.”

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Melody Molinoff of Washington, D.C., who has two sons, ages 9 and 11, in the public school system, agreed.

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“Parents see the teacher as their partner in bringing up their child, and that’s a huge responsibility that we are putting on our teachers and our schools,” Ms. Molinoff said. “I always want my sons’ teachers to know what their challenges are, what they like, just more about them.”

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Mary Clayman, a fourth-grade teacher in the Washington public schools, said she has noticed the same thing from the other side of the desk.

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“I’ve taught over 500 kids so far in my career and parents in every grade want to know how their child is doing socially and emotionally, often times more so than whether they can multiply or divide quite yet,” Mrs. Clayman said.

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In her book, Ms. Schwartz writes about mistakes that might have been prevented if she had known her students better. She had a student named Chris who was obsessed with science. Ms. Schwartz thought she had done Chris a huge favor by securing a spot for him in a science-focused summer camp. But she was unaware of the family’s financial struggles and it turned out that his parents could not afford to take time off from work to get Chris to camp.

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Ms. Schwartz said classrooms can become a supportive environment for students coping with grief. She suggests that schools have “grief and loss” inventories for students who have gone through a crisis, with input from families so that the child’s future teachers know what that student is dealing with.

“As teachers, we know parents are the first and best teachers for their children and we want them to work with us,” she said.