MRA Conference Reflection

As I’m ½ way through day two of a state wide conference outside of my content area, I’m having some beliefs reaffirmed. In education, all too often we lock ourselves in our silos and forget to take a step back and see the broader picture.

What I’ve learned at MRA has less to do with specific individual techniques about guided reading, or writers workshop and more to do with the shifting paradigm of teaching and learning. Great teaching in any content area inspires students to ask big questions about the world around them, shows them a need to learn deeply (in order to answer their own questions), and as a result, inspires curiosity inside them to continue the learning. If we authentically create these learning processes in literacy or any other subject we will be showing students that they have the ability to impact the world now, instead of asking them what they want to be when they grow up.

In the opening keynote Alfred Tatum said that one of his goals for his students is to help them become “urgent souls.” I deeply believe that becoming an urgent souls has very little to do with the content standards that we cover but has EVERYTHING to do with the way we cover the standards.

Are we growing students who will be connected to each other solving problems in careers we don’t know will exist yet or are we growing factory workers for jobs that are being eliminated every day?

How Do We Break Down Our Students’ Silos?

One thing that all people have in common is that we feel uncomfortable when we’re being judged negatively. The degree to which we feel it and what we do with that uncomfortable feeling varies, but we all feel it. The danger in this is allowing this uncomfortable feeling to prevent us from seeking meaningful feedback. We as teachers need to open our students up to feedback and help them learn to give each other meaningful feedback rather than judgment laced critiques.

I think that the first thing we need to admit is that this problem is exacerbated by traditional feedback. Formal feedback usually comes from the teacher to the student at the end of the learning process. As the student reads the feedback they are reading your words as they feel their dreams of a 100% melt away. Your feedback causes a negative reaction that they can’t help feeling instead of inspiring them to get better. We teach kids to have a fixed mindset because our system for growth in many cases is punitive. In this case grades are doing a good job at ranking students but not doing a good job at helping our students continue to grow their understanding of the subject matter. So… what can we do about it? I have a few ideas but I’d love to hear yours in the comments.


Set Clear Learning Goals – 

Help your students begin with the end in mind. If they know exactly what they need to do in order to show you that they understand the material they can help coach each other to get there. When my students are working on a project, I have them give me exit slips that explain what grade they would give themselves on a particular standard and how they plan to earn the next grade up. It helps them realize where they are and what their next steps are to move forward. While they’re filling out the slips they often whisper to each other (and me) to figure out what their next steps should be. When they come in the next week they have actionable self-reflection and can hit the ground running.


Stress Iteration –

Feeling judged stinks. It stinks even more when you feel like you were done. When our students feel like they’re showing their peers a work in progress the feedback they get can feel more helpful.


Teach How To Give Feedback – 

We as teachers know that feedback should be judgment free and tied to concrete examples in the students work. In my class today I watched two fourth grade groups seek impromptu feedback from each other and heard one say “I heard your chorus and understood it was your chorus because it came back with the same words and melody. I’m not sure what section was your verse because I never heard a second melody come back.” That is direct, actionable, concrete, and judgement free. Both groups walked away with new things to work on and more concrete understandings from listening and giving others feedback. We all know the person doing the most talking is the person doing the most learning.


Know That You’re Still Important – 

I still give just as much feedback as I did before I started actively helping students learn together. There is just 30(ish) times as much feedback happening in the room.


I always love hearing new ideas. What are ways that you help students grow together as a community of learners? How do you help enable peer scaffolding?

Growing with a Student Teacher

First off, I have to say I won the student teacher lottery.  My student teacher @ochoajon8 came into his summative experience ready to take over his own classroom.  I discovered that all of my self preparation to have difficult conversations was completely unnecessary and I needed to think completely differently about this process. Here’s what we’ve come up with.

I observe Jon formally 1-2 classes per day in a shared Evernote notebook so he has my notes to augment his own on how the class went.  I format my feedback with these three headings:

  1. Lesson notes – this includes word choice, general observations (positive and things to improve)
  2. Reflective Questions – These are questions designed to get him to think about things that we need to think about.  Some have been about our planning process, some have been thinking about the very positive things that are happening and how to make them happen more often.
  3. I notice you’re improving on… – What has made Jon so great is that his reflective practice is already well established.  He shares his own personal growth goals with me and I let him know where I’m seeing growth.  He’s great at self monitoring, but a second set of eyes is always a good thing.


Keeping all of this in a shared notebook in Evernote has turned this process into a two way dialogue about how the day went.  It was difficult to talk about the specifics of the day before I started taking detailed notes and sharing through Evernote.  In addition, the time constraints of our day made it difficult to plan and have the conversations we needed to have.  Seeing his fresh perspective in his responses to my feedback has turned this into an extremely symbiotic relationship.


How have you framed your formal relationship with your student teachers?

What ways can we improve this process for the good of all?


Stuck on an Escalator

Over the summer I stumbled onto this video and thought it would be a great way to begin to create a culture of learning this year with the students I lead – Stuck on an Escalator

While watching the video most students chuckle and get frustrated with the characters in the video.

“Why don’t they just walk up the escalator?!”

After the video finishes we talked about how the video was literally about people getting stuck on an escalator, which is kind of silly.  It’s deeper meaning is the powerful one; most of the time the solutions to your own problems are just a few mental steps away.  After students talked and shared experiences they had last year working in groups I made them two promises…

1. There will be a time this year where you will be stuck on the escalator.  You’ll come up to me thinking you need my help but if I can see that you’re really close to figuring it out, I’ll tell you you’re stuck on the escalator and give you more time to work.  If I tell you this, don’t get frustrated, get excited because you’re really close to a solution!

2. There will be a time this year when you are working in a group and someone else is stuck on the escalator.  If you get frustrated with them at a time when they are already frustrated with themselves it will just make the problem bigger.  If a group member is stuck, be patient and help!  Think of a time you were stuck and how you would have wanted your partners to help.  Be the change you want to see.

I want my students to feel like its ok to struggle with their work.  We all struggle with our work.  We don’t need to get frustrated, it will just take time and planning to solve.  Giving them a silly metaphor to understand struggle has taken our community one step closer to dealing with frustrating situations with empathy instead of judgment.


End of the Year Reflection

The end of the year is a time of reflection for me.  I pull out my lessons from this year; look through the red pen marks from my reflections after teaching the lessons; and then make a skeleton plan for next year.  I’m always excited for this end of the year reflection.  Every time I finish I’m filled with the excitement of knowing that next year will be better than this year.


As I was in the nitty-gritty of this process I received an email from a fifth grader saying he had written a speech for fifth grade graduation and asking if he could read it.  It reminded me why I do what I do, why I need to be better tomorrow than I am today, and why kids are awesome.  Had to share… Here it is:


Almost every time you take a car ride you enjoy the sounds of someone making music. When you go to a party you usually hear music being played. Almost every day of our lives we hear music which usually leads to us tapping our foot and then singing along and then music fills us with joy and one song changes our day and makes us happy.  Every teacher at Carpenter has taken a part in filling us with knowledge, five days a week. Every teacher was a big help but Mr. Cooper has probably left the biggest impression on me. He and music have taught me five things that I hope everyone here uses for the rest of their lives.

1             Music is a gift, being able to play an instrument is special and you should keep doing it, and sharing your gift for the rest of your lives.  Anytime you learn something special in your life do not forget it, keep it and be proud of yourself.


2            Writing any form of music will be a challenge, keep trying because it will become better. In life things will be hard but if you want to move on try again and reach for perfection.


3             A concert depends on your rehearsals; a perfect rehearsal usually leads to a good performance. But when a practice is not beneficial the performance is not as good, in life you need to prepare yourself before you can complete the task ahead of you.


4              In music you get to be very independent, you may write a song that you like that other people do not enjoy. In life do not let people bring you down by giving you their opinion.  Be the judge for you hold you head high and believe and enjoy what you want to enjoy.


5              While doing a musical project with a group, a partner, or your whole class you need to not only be good but making sure your group is doing okay. If just you do good you won’t sound as good as if you waited for your team and all worked together.  In life you will have to depend on others and others will depend on you, you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page if you want to succeed.


I hope that today and everyday of your life you will realize that music is a gift and that today and someday you should share it and pass on your knowledge to your kids, grandkids, friends, and family.

Thanks for the reminder, C.



Are your students engaged?

When you try to pin down exactly what an engaged student looks like it is extremely difficult. They can and should look different, because they are different. For example, when my students write lyrics they’re spread out all over my classroom. Some students work in chairs, some lying on the floor, some under desks. Sometimes it gets so quiet you could hear a pin drop, until it erupts in voices sharing their latest line. Even when that is happening and everything looks good there is still one more thing I think about…

Compliance vs. Engagement

When I’m engaged in something I can work on it for hours. My students are the same way. Of course there are some days that I know I can’t turn my back on a certain student because I know they will stop working and do something else. That child isn’t engaged. When I’m looking at him he is being compliant with what I want him to do. If I were to leave the classroom that compliance would crumble; he hasn’t bought in. When this happens I step back and really look at how I’m teaching a concept. Can the kids own it more? Can they have more control? Usually in my room that is when the engagement piece comes in.

I know that my students are engaged when I feel like I could leave for the day and they would keep working until it was time to go home. Engagement is not dependent on whether there is a teacher in the room. I know my students were engaged when they come back the next day and stop me in the hall saying “Hey! I worked more on my song last night. I emailed it to you!” That is engagement. Engagement is not waiting for the confines of school to fit their learning schedule.

We need to help students learn how to be engaged in productive learning because they don’t get to have a teacher in their back pocket in 13th (or maybe 17th) grade. Eventually they will grow up, get a job, and not have someone there to tell them what to do next.

How often does engagement happen?

I would say that in my room about 85% of my students are engaged and about 30% continue to be engaged when they go home. Normally, 100% of my students are being compliant but that’s not really the thing I’m striving for. I want my students to be so excited about what we’re doing that they can’t help to work on it at home. When I was in school I sat in 5th grade math class drawing full scale maps of James Bond for N64, fantasizing about the level I couldn’t quite beat the night before. I want my students to go home drawing full scale maps of the problems they couldn’t quite solve in school and then come back with answers and more questions.

Thank you #ACMI2

This morning I went to an (almost) EdCamp style conference for administrators in Birmingham, MI. It was a fantastic experience. I met and caught up with many people I look up to and who push my thinking through my PLN on twitter. My biggest takeaway from every session was the same. Figure out who you are as a leader and lead from that place. Be honest about who you are to yourself and others and then reflect and grow from that place.

As I sat around numerous tables that I was lucky enough to be part of what I picked up on was everyone’s willingness to admit mistakes and grow together as learners. It’s hard to take risks like that in front of others but it was refreshing to see and hear people that I look up to genuinely reflecting about their practices. It made me feel like the work I’m doing is genuinely effecting the students I see day-to-day and will one day help the staff I will work with.

Favorite quote of the day goes to @HickeyGroup – Your title does not define how much power you have, it just defines how many people you serve.

Thanks to everyone at AdCampMI2 for continuing to push my thinking and help me become a better educator and leader.

Student Autonomy in the Classroom

I am rereading Daniel Pink’s Drive for a book club at one of my schools.  The first time it was a complete revelation to me.  It helped me step aside in my classroom and help my students take the reins of their own learning.  This time it is allowing me to subtly rethink the things I’m doing.

We all know that students who exhibit intrinsically motivated behavior (pink calls this type i) have an easier time mastering things than students who exhibit extrinsically motivated behavior (type x).  Type I behavior leads to mastery where type x behavior leads to compliance.  What is difficult is helping students who normally exhibit type x behavior into type I learners.  I think that this transition happens when you give students as much autonomy as possible.  There will be setbacks for all students and, well honestly I think that’s a good thing if we deal with it in the right way.  We need to teach standards but we also need to grow healthy adults.

Pink says that there are four major things we can have autonomy over; time, technique, team, and task.  Some of these are very easy to give to our students, others are not.  Here is a look at them individually.


Schools are obviously not work environments where students can come and go as they please.  We can’t be here until 9 at night for kids who would rather come in at 1 in the afternoon.  I get that.

Much of the life in my room is spent in projects.  Those projects have defined start and end days, but much of the space in between lives in a world of flex.  For example, right now my fourth graders are writing a piece of music that uses B, A, G, and E on the recorder, creating a background track in GarageBand to play along with, answering some questions about the process, and then we’re presenting.  The way we talked about timeline was “You have two weeks and then we’re going to perform.  If I were you I’d spend a week on my recorder part, half a week on the GarageBand track, and half a week practicing the two together.”  Some took my advice; some flipped it and started with the GarageBand track; some spent nearly all of their time in GarageBand and had to cram in the recorder at the last 25 minutes or so.   After our performance week next week we will look at how we did (performances will be recorded) and reflect on the process.  Every group has a piece that is pretty awesome to share but this isn’t the first time they had autonomy over their time.  It takes a few times of honest reflection for them to make meaningful change in the way they spend their time.  It’s difficult but necessary.


I think that schools are pretty good at this piece of the puzzle.  We are good at giving kids lots of different techniques and then letting them figure out what works best for them.  In my room I can be a little more flexible than most others.  Technique in my room usually evolves through the process of music making.  I may demonstrate how to play something but who’s watching exactly how I’m holding my hands? (Even when I draw attention to the way I’m holding something.)  When a student has a problem we talk about a different way to hold a drumstick, or a different way of holding your hands on the piano.  They need to see why it is necessary before the how matters enough to pay attention to.


This is where it gets really hard.  We’re starting to do a better job with this through the workshop model.  Students genuinely do have a huge influence over their task in those models.  There is no autonomy over task when worksheets are involved…

In my room at the end of a set of experiences that build understanding of a topic I used to create a project that allowed students to show their understanding of what we learned.  When I first get a set of students or sporadically when they’re ready for something new, I do design the project in a way they haven’t seen before.  Usually though I say, “Alright what have we learned over the last few weeks?  Your job is to create a piece of music to show your understanding of (all the things they just said).” I go around and discuss with all the students what they’ve come up with and push them as needed, but usually they’re spot on.  They know how to demonstrate what they’ve learned.


This one is easy for us but hard for the kids.  Talk about growing pains.  When kids first start choosing groups in my room, it’s not pretty.  There is a whole lot of “My group isn’t sharing well”, or “no one is listening to me”.  My answer is (almost) always “You’re really going to have to think about the group you choose next week.” I monitor closely for kids who are being left out and fix it before it becomes a problem.  Gradually students stop choosing groups based on their cliques and begin choosing “music groups”.  It takes a while and some students struggle longer than others.  I think it’s an important lesson to learn.  Worth the time that the missteps at the beginning take because the end process is fantastic.

In other words we have a ton of things that we control because it’s easier for us when we control it.  It’s messy when kids manage their lives at first.  Start small and grow.  It doesn’t stay messy for long.  It leads to type I behavior and to mastery instead of creating more type x behavior that the 21st century does not need.