One of the things I have enjoyed the most about teaching and leading independent middle schools is the opportunity to travel with my students. Day trips, overnight trips, or service trips are all unique and provide me with a unique perspective of my students. I am such a huge proponent of student travel that I practically had to force my daughter to go on her eighth-grade trip a few years ago. She was one of those kids who never wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house or go away to sleep-away camp. I felt it was such a valuable learning lesson that I insisted she go with her peers to Washington D.C.
Having spent many years coordinating trips for students, I often have heard that it is too expensive, students have been there before, or “I” will just take them there on our next family vacation. All of those are valid reasons why you might not want to send a child on a school trip, but here are just a few reasons why I think that student travel (without parents) is so important:
“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” –-Theodore Roosevelt
Last week, in a very rare moment of downtime, I perused my social media sites, and it wasn’t to check up on my kids this time. I was excited about a friend’s recent news, and I wanted to check to see how things were going. A friend from high school is in a band, and they had a major label release of their first album. The album has garnered critical acclaim. What is interesting about this news is that I am a woman of “a certain age” (that age when it becomes impolite to ask how old I am), and this friend has been working on getting an album deal since we were in high school. That is a very long time to be working for something with very little success.
To be honest, if I were in my friend’s shoes, I would have given up long ago. Many people told him to get a “real” job, and he did. He was quite successful in that arena too, but on the side, he continually worked towards his dream of being a recording artist and making his own music. I was struck with awe as I considered how long it has taken for him to achieve his goal. I could only imagine the number of rejections he had faced before getting to this point. I felt that sense of pride that rises up when we recognize the efforts, perseverance, and achievements in others, especially those we have supported along their journey.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Nancy Doda and Mark Springer at a Middle-Level professional conference. Their passion for education, especially the education of middle schoolers, was inspiring. Attending sessions with them led to a lot of the work we do as a seventh-grade team, but it also has influenced how I teach.
As a teacher, I am always striving to improve my craft. In addition, as I become more comfortable with transitioning from a more traditional pedagogy to leaving the stage, I have looked for ways to incorporate more student voice in my classroom. In an ideal world, I would love for students to drive the curriculum more than I do, but one of the common constraints many teachers feel is a lack of time and a more-or-less mandated curriculum. I am fortunate that I do not have to worry about state mandated testing, but unless we move away from a structured grading system, I will never be able to fully relinquish my mandated curriculum.
A personal goal that I have for myself is to generate lessons where students are able to construct meaning on their own within the confines of my structured curriculum. Each year, I get better at doing this, but the students are different every year. What works for one group of students does not work for others. That is still a work in progress. However, I have been finding other ways to incorporate student voice in my classroom:
A parent recently texted me about their child. To be clear, parents don’t usually communicate with me via this method. I just happen to know this parent outside of school, and honestly, it was quite nice to hear positive feedback. She wanted to let me know that her son had been raving about me all weekend. One of his comments to his mother was the most striking to me: “She never gets mad at me. I don’t get in trouble in her class.” When his mom asked how that was possible (he is notoriously ALWAYS in trouble), he replied, “She used to teach special ed.” That last comment made me chuckle, but his first comment made me think. Why is it that a student can be “difficult” for one teacher, but completely NOT difficult for another. In truth, I don’t have a coherent answer for that one just yet, but I do have a few ideas.
First, I believe in building relationships with my students. I am fortunate enough to teach in a small school (small in comparison to a public school). I have fewer students than a public school teacher. I have times in which I can engage with students outside of the classroom whether that is at my door before class, in the halls between class times, during sporting events, or in the lunchroom. I make it my business to know my students. I observe them. I listen to them.
I have had a lot of ideas floating through my head. I have lists of things to write about. LISTS is not an exaggeration either. I have lists on my computer; lists on my phone; lists on post-its in my paper planner. I seem to have more ideas than I have time to flesh out. Now that comment writing season is behind me, I hope that I will have more time to write.
In the meantime, I have two small personal goals for my classroom: get the kids to think for themselves, and get them out of their seats and moving. In the last few years, I have faced a conundrum. It seemed like any time I asked students to think and make connections they fight me. I can’t even tell you how many times I have had my classroom fall quiet for a few seconds after I pose a question only to have a student abruptly say, “Oh, Mrs. Lindsay, just tell us what to write down.” Even years after attending Project Zero, participating in workshops with Grant Wiggins, and facilitating numerous other professional development opportunities; I would feel like I had run out of ideas to get kids to look at the subject differently. I struggled with how to go deeper, yet “teach” all of the content with our rushed schedule. Defeated, I would do what many teachers had clearly done before me. I would give them the answer. I felt and still feel that this was not the purpose of education at all.
For me, there was another underlying concern as well. Because my students were constantly taking notes or “doing” a project, they rarely moved. While I rarely have behavior issues in my class, I knew this was not appropriate for this age group. I have a hard time sitting still for an hour myself. So, as a result, I have been trying to find opportunities to get the kids thinking more and moving more. Sometimes the solutions are simple and low-tech.
For this thinking routine, I wanted kids to make connections between one idea and another regarding the fall of Rome. The idea was for the students to realize that there wasn’t just ONE cause for the fall of Rome in the Western Empire. So, I had the students use post-it notes to attach to the white board in the classroom. They were constantly moving between their seats to review their notes, consult with a friend and read other students’ post-its. Then, they would add their own. For an hour, every student was engaged. They consulted with one another, and I rarely saw any students off-task. I moved about with them as well. The solution was simple and effective. Students raved about the class time and felt they understood the idea more easily because as one student said, “they interacted with the information instead of being told what to think.” Funny how the tides have turned.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce.” –A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Recently, I was watching the regional competitions for American Ninja Warrior. I’m obsessed with the level of fitness people must have to compete in this obstacle course. However, I was watching this particular Regional for one purpose—to watch Kacy Catanzaro. She was the first woman to complete the qualifying course and to complete the full course on American Ninja Warrior to qualify for nationals. I wanted to see her run for myself. The question in my head was why did it take six seasons for a woman to get this far in this competition.
In an interview following her successful run, Catanzaro explained why she thought no other woman had made it that far yet, “It’s just because there was always that doubt in the back of their minds, that no girl’s ever done it, or that some people might say no girl can do it, or girls aren’t as fast, girls aren’t as strong—all of these things that women are used to hearing.” She refused to listen to the negative thoughts, and she succeeded.
So, what does this have to do with education? Reading Catanzaro’s interview, made me think of my students. Those students that say they just aren’t good at _______. By the time students reach middle school, they have a lot of preconceived notions about what they can and cannot do. Perhaps, their well-intentioned parents tell them that it was okay that their grades were lower in one subject. It must not have been their strength. Perhaps, a teacher told them they were good at math, but writing just isn’t their thing. Perhaps, a content area takes a bit more work for them, so they convince themselves that they will never be successful. Whatever the cause, I feel that teachers can work to erase these doubts. However, it is the “how” of erasing these doubts that can be harder to articulate.
While I am not always successful, here are a few ways that I feel I have helped students erase doubt over the years:
UPDATE: I had a hard time getting great images of this activity to share. In my opinion, the process went very well. Some students loved it. Others didn’t care at all. In general, students learned yet another way to improve their comprehension. Those students who embraced it continued to use this methodology throughout the school year even when it was assigned.
I will be introducing formal sketchnoting to my seventh-grade classes this week.
Sketchnoting, in its purest form, is creating a personal visual story as one is listening to a speaker or reading a text. I also believe the interactive notebook, which includes the process of taking “regular” notes” while listening to a speaker and later creating a sketchnote of the text notes, would also be considered sketchnoting. This page will provide links, ideas, tips,and research evidence dealing with the power of sketchnoting.
I will give more details about how we accomplish this task. For older students, I would give less guidelines. However, given the age of these students and that this is a newer concept, I will give more framework for the concept. Students will have the choice of device and/or app. All finished products will be uploaded to their Google Drive to be shared with me and fellow classmates.