Thinking Ahead – Planning for Next Year’s Classroom Culture

I was in Austin all last week training for UT Dana Center (@UTdanacenter) International Fellows
(#UTDCIFF) and Department of Education Activities (@DoDEA) College and Career Ready Initiative teacher workshops happening this summer. A major focus for the week was on classroom culture and how important this is to mathematical learning and student discourse. Everyone at this training was either a current math teacher, a supervisor, mentor, coach, professional development provider, etc., so naturally, as part of the conversation, the following questions/concerns arose:

  1. What is classroom culture and why does it matter?
  2. How do you get students to talk to each other and engage in productive learning?
  3. How do you respond to teachers who say things like, “well, this would never work with my students” or “I can’t get my students to talk about math when we are in groups”…

You get the picture, and I am sure you have either thought these things or heard these from teachers you work with.

The short answer – it takes planning, training, and consistency. If a teacher thinks that they can just put students into groups, give them a problem, and they are going to immediately start talking and working together, they are very quickly in for a big surprise. Especially that first time, and especially if you have never done these types of collaborative learning with your students. Which brings us back to classroom culture.  What is it and why does it matter?

There are many definitions out there of classroom culture. I will give you my perspective. Classroom culture is a classroom environment where students feel safe making mistakes, they are comfortable sharing their thinking process with other students and with the teacher, and all ideas are entertained and acknowledged. Everyone’s voice is heard, everyone gets a chance to participate, and there is respectful conversations and debate about the work being done.  This matters because then students are given permission to persevere in problem solving situations where they may not know the answer, or may have a different approach then someone else or may have a question about something another student or the teacher has shared. It ties into those mathematical practices (#1 & #3, just to name a couple):

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
  • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others

But, this type of engagement, discourse and collaboration with and among students doesn’t just happen. Here are what I consider the three basic elements:

1. Planning

Planning entails thinking about the structures you want to use with students (so pairs, small groups, whole class) and the types of discussions and work you want to students to engage in. There is more to it than this, but some things to think about are

  • What task are students working on and what is the goal (a worksheet of 40 problems is NOT going to promote student discussion). Provide a rich task that fosters critical thinking, questioning, problem-solving.
  • How do you want students to engage? Are they talking in pairs first and then sharing with the small group? Does each pair/group need to show some product (i.e. their work, their thinking, the end result).
  • How will you bring the whole class together at the end? Will each group share out? Will you hang work and have a ‘gallery walk’ and come together to share?
  • How will you know that students have learned or reached the goal? What should students be able to do?

You need to think of these things ahead of time, most importantly because without an engaging, rich, though provoking problem, the conversations students have won’t be productive (and can lead to all the issues mentioned previously).

2. Training

How do you get students to talk about math (or any subject?) How do you get students to work in pairs or small groups and stay focused on a task? How do you get students to listen to each other and to provide critiques without insult (i.e. no ‘that’s stupid’ or “you’re an idiot”). It takes training.  I mean that literally. You have to show and model what it is you expect of them and practice, practice, practice.  Again, there is more to this than what I am listing, but here are some ideas:

  • Start those first few days/weeks of school with non-content related activities that are non-threatening, fun, and where everyone feels comfortable sharing (so talk about ‘the best horror movie’ or argue for/against a ‘beach is the best place to vacation’)
  • Set up group norms – i.e. if someone is talking, everyone else is listening; everyone makes mistakes, and that’s okay, you can support them and provide alternatives, but never insult them; everyone must contribute one idea; everyone’s idea should be heard; you can disagree but must provide a reason why; etc.
  • Show them how to get into small groups (so physically moving desks back and forth – it’s fun to do this a timed game); show them and practice how to talk with elbow partners, or face-partners, or the people next to them.  Practice sharing talk-time (a time works here).
  • Show them and practice group ‘roles’ – i.e. timer, recorder, controller, group spokesperson, etc. Switch roles up.
  • Practice different ways of calling on students (so they know they are all responsible at any time) – so person in the group/pair with the shortest hair, or the darkest colored shirt, or blue eyes….really anything works.

There are obviously lots more ways to set up these collaborative processes, but the idea behind training is that there are some expectations for talking, sharing, and working together, and if we practice these and adhere to these, then our time learning is going to be more positive and productive. Practice, practice, practice.  Which leads to consistency.

3. Consistency

I know teachers here this all the time – if you set boundaries for your classroom, you need to be consistent or students will not follow them (heck, this is true for parents as well!). Again – those first few days and weeks of school are where you set these boundaries up and start practicing with students and modeling both behaviors and actions. More importantly, follow through on any consequences. For classroom culture, this means if you have an expectation that students listen when others are talking, whether that be student or teacher, then be consistent.  If you are talking and they are not listening, stop – call it out – and then talk again. Same thing for students talking. Acknowledge when something is not adhering to expectations and call it out and then refer back to your expectations. Students very quickly learn what is expected, and if they realize that you are going to consistently hold them to these expectations, such as listening, allowing for mistakes, everyone’s ideas matter, etc., then they are going to feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their questions and their solutions/ideas. It becomes a classroom where learning is up front and center and ‘we are in this together’ becomes the norm.

CHALLENGE

I plan to do some more specific posts about classroom culture and provide some resources connected to planning and training. For now, I brought this idea of classroom culture up at the end of a school year because as teachers, you are about to embark on a summer of rest and relaxation. For most teachers I know, it is also a time where we do some personal learning and planning for next year. I would like to challenge all of you to really think about how you want your classroom culture to be next year. You need to start on day one of school creating this classroom culture, so spend some time this summer planning for that. What structures do you feel you could incorporate (i.e. pair work, small groups, etc.) and learn about those structures. What are rich tasks and go find some that would work for the content you teach. What do you want students doing when they are learning together? Go find some tips and ideas for how to create those collaborative discussions and problem-solving environments.

Only YOU can change the classroom culture in your own classroom – so think about what you want that to look like and sound like, and spend some of your summer learning and finding ways to foster this culture in your classroom when school starts in September (or August).

Preparation and Making Educated Decisions on November 8

I watched the Presidential Debate this past Monday. My brain still hurts.

I obviously could talk about a lot of things I heard, but instead I want to bring up two things that stood out for me.

  1. Hillary Clinton’s reply to Donald Trump when he accused her of being “over prepared” for the debate. Her response: “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing,” 
  2. Education – not really mentioned in the ‘debate’ (yes, let’s use that term very loosely!), except in passing, and in all honesty, sort of missing in this whole election process.

As an educator, these two things struck me as sort of key components – we need a president that is prepared and we need to get this country focused on education, because, as is very evident in this political climate we are in right now, lack of education is clearly resulting in a lot of inaccuracies, belief in “hype” and poor decision making. Education is so crucial, and we need a President who is going to help address issues like equity, ESSA, funding, ELL….so many things.

Let’s talk about preparedness. Can you imagine, as a teacher, walking into a classroom of students unprepared? Unthinkable! Teachers study the content they are going to teach, anticipate student misconceptions, prepare for alternate ways of presenting information, prepare questions to guide and encourage student discourse and investigation. They know their stuff.  They have a strategy. Because of that preparation, they can make educated decisions and changes during a class, based on student questions, misunderstandings, tangent trains of thought, etc. The plan may change when execution begins – as any teacher knows, the lesson you planned can go in lots of directions – BUT – the preparation for that lesson leads you and the students in relevant directions focused on the original content. Preparedness matters when important decisions are at stake and, in the case of students, when learning needs to happen – so…being prepared matters every day?!!

I would like a prepared President who knows his/her ‘content’ (about our country, policy, government, treaties,  and world affairs, etc.). One who can use that preparation to make decisions, big and small, and be flexible for those times when tangent trains of thought or questions or disagreements arise.

This leads me to my second focus, education in this country. The next President will have a huge impact on shaping education policy – and its not mentioned much and we don’t really hear about the candidates take on education except for sound bites. ESSA is just coming into play, so that’s huge. The next Supreme Court Justice appointment could impact education policy -also huge. The next Presidents’ take on the Department of Education, on Pre-school Education, on higher-education, teacher pay, funding, technology, etc- all those really important things we educators think about on a regular basis, this matters a great deal to the future of education in this country. The next President should understand education policy – how the federal, state and local governments interact, what issues and policies are important and needed, how changes impact students access and equity in education. If we don’t educate ourselves on what all the Presidential Candidates believe about education, and instead make decisions based on personal feelings, ‘hype’, showmanship, he said/she said, then we are NOT PREPARED and our vote on November 8 is NOT an educated one, and could drastically hurt the state of education in our country.

So please – as educators interested in the future of education, prepare for this November 8 election. Read the actual policies on education that each candidate proposes. Find out what they know (or don’t know). Prepare, compare, and make an educated decision.

Here’s a nice quick visual summary of the four candidates positions (from BallotPedia):

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Here are some good resources for comparing the candidates views on education . I’ve also included some links that compare the candidates on many of their policy stands, not just education. But, as an educator, education is rather crucial to me, so it is the one I focus on.

  • This link has a nice summary and then a run-down of each candidates stance and things they have said about education.
  • This is an interactive comparison on different education related topics (just Clinton vs Trump)
  • A higher-ed comparison of the candidates (just Clinton vs Trump)
  • List of some key education ideas and how candidates compare
  • Strong Public Schools (NEA) comparison
  • In their own words comparisons of the 4 candidates (Ask yourself – who knows what they are talking about, who doesn’t?)
  • 20 Questions/Answers (on more than just education) from ScienceDebate.org. All 4 candidates. Eye opening – again, ask yourself, who is prepared, who isn’t?

Let’s do what we as educators do best – prepare, plan and make educated decisions. It matters.

 

Test-Driving Classroom Technology

45785364I am a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom, particularly in mathematics. If technology is used appropriately, it can do several things: provide visuals for concepts that are often hard for students to grasp; allow for students to explore and test conjectures; provide opportunities to go beyond basic understandings and get into deeper meaning and more complex structures; provide multiple ways to practice and learn; and obviously, foster engagement. These are just some of the benefits.  There is of course a downside to technology – lack of training for teachers often leads to using technology just as a digital replacement of paper and pencil – an electronic worksheet for example – in which case, what’s the point?  That’s NOT a great use. Or using technology when it is NOT the best option or doesn’t really enhance/support the learning goals. Or using the wrong technology. Just because you have technology doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your learning goals/standards.

In my own research, and in my personal travels around the country working in math classrooms and with math teachers, there is a wide variety of technology available, and more often than not, this technology is NOT being used to enhance and expand learning. Often times this is because technology has been purchased with no real effort to match it to learning goals or standards, and little or no training or support for how to use the technology in the classroom has been provided. Teachers are frustrated, students are frustrated, and the technology becomes just another ‘add on’ versus a true learning tool.

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What is often missing in a technology implementation is the most crucial step – planning. With planning, technology aligned to objectives becomes a focus for purchasing technology that actual supports learning goals and needs. Seems obvious – but, having been an administrator, I know that often times ‘funds’ for technology are released and must be spent quickly (i.e. for me, I was told we must put our orders in by this week or we lose the funding), so often times technology is purchased that sounds good, or looks good, but may in fact not be a good fit.

Ideally, technology should support learning goals, which can only happen if you sit down with your subject leaders/teachers, look at your standards and learning goals, and then analyze the various technology options and determine which ones support those goals. And, if possible, test these technologies out BEFORE purchasing, to ensure they do indeed support learning.  This also allows you to plan for training needs of the teachers, infrastructure, curriculum and standards alignment, etc. These are important steps – often left out of the technology implementation process – and often the reason why much of the technology in school is misused and unused.  I bet if you looked around your school you would find a lot of ‘great technology’ gathering dust.

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If technology company’s were smart, and if IT and Education leaders really focused on planning for technology, there would be a lot more pilots or test-driving of technology before big purchases are made. (LAUSD and the iPad debacle comes to mind). The ability to try out technology with both teachers and students and really see if it is going to be a good fit to meet your learning goals is something that will  help your school/district make the best technology decisions and purchases. As an example, CASIO Education has a technology loaner program where you can in fact, test-drive our technology before you purchase. It makes sense – if you are thinking of purchasing some graphing calculators, why not test-drive the 9750 GII and the Prizm and see which one fits your algebra or geometry or calculus students and standards the best? Is the FX-55plus a good fit for your elementary and middle school students? These types of questions are what should arise when you plan for technology AHEAD of time and having the ability to test-drive your options before spending the money just makes sense.

You don’t buy a new car without a test drive, so why buy technology without one? Especially when making large school/district purchases.

Here’s the link to CASIO’s loaner program – check it out and go for a drive! http://www.casioeducation.com/benefits/loaner