Unteaching and Unlearning is Intellectual!

Reposted from https://hawkhopesblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/unteaching-and-unlearning-is-intellectual/

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The “apprenticeship of observation,” introduced by Dan Lortie (1975) provides a lens through which we can consider why preservice teachers (and the general public) may feel they know all they need to know about teaching and learning.  They went to school, kindergarten through 12th grade, at least, and have had numerous teachers across their educational experience.  As a result, they may enter into a teacher preparation program with the belief that they know what teachers do, why teachers do what they do, and how they, as teachers themselves, will do it better.

High quality teacher preparation programs typically prepare candidates through a mix of theory, evidence-based and best practices, and field experiences. Teacher educators and preservice teachers often struggle with the disconnect between the preparation program’s teachings and the practices and strategies preservice teachers experience in their field placements.  This is when we must also tackle “unteaching” of misunderstood or misinformed educational practices and “unlearning” of the things we think we know about what it means to be a teacher.

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Unteaching

Unteaching requires us to acknowledge some of the commonly-held beliefs and practices prevalent in schools and classrooms; as well as to challenge those practices that are problematic with evidence and applicable strategies.  For example, in early childhood teacher preparation, we are charged with unteaching shaming and punitive behavior management systems such as clip charts because these systems persist in practice.  Simultaneously, we teach the evidence about social emotional developmentcommunity building, and trauma-informed care, which are all in direct conflict with systems like clip charts.  Both are critical to future teachers’ ability to eschew traditional systems and instead implement best practices in meeting the needs of their learners, teaching the behaviors they want to see, and honoring the individual and unique needs of each child.

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Unlearning

Unteaching is hard work but unlearning is even more challenging.  The “apprenticeship of observation” is so powerful.  Unlearning is the act of letting go of ideas, beliefs, and practices we believed to be true, effective, and valuable.  When presented with more compelling evidence for an alternative approach, we unlearn the previously held belief and replace it with a new belief.  Years of watching disruptive kids be removed from class, conforming to threats of punitive consequences (e.g., your grade drops one letter grade for late submission), and expecting school success to be measured by compliance with rules, many future teachers struggle to adopt more equitable, intentional strategies focused more on teaching than on punishment.  As I have become more intentional in implementing unteaching pedagogy in my courses and interactions with preservice as well as inservice teachers, I have become increasingly aware of the challenges we face in creating inclusive, accepting, responsive learning environments for learners and teachers.

In an attempt to “bridge the gap” (is this the most overused phrase in education?), I, along with my colleague and friend at James Madison University, Dr. Mira Williams, started a website with an intentional social media presence in an effort to make our own unteaching pedagogy and unlearning practice visible to other teacher educators, teachers, and learners.

Social Media As A Tool

We started by building a Facebook page for sharing blog posts and resources with a growing community of teachers.  However, on advice from a trusted marketing expert/friend, we branched into Instagram.  Do you know that there are thousands of teachers on Instagram who post about their lessons, their resources, their struggles, their wins, their processes, their thinking, and their outfits of the day?  Neither did we.  The hashtag teachersofinstagram has over 3.7 million posts as of today and the Instagram teacher leaders boast upwards of 40,000 followers.  Where are teachers going to share resources, ask for support, get new ideas?  Instagram.

Our site, @teachingisintellectual, attempts to provide bite size best practices to our small but growing community of followers.  We use apps such as Word Swag and PicLab to create visuals in order to communicate an idea or to pique interest for a click over to the blog.  We engage with the growing number of teachers we follow as well in order to contribute to the community and build relationships.  We have learned so much about what teachers want support with, where they look for solutions, and how they challenge each other on matters of unteaching and unlearning simply by following, participating, and listening.

The culture of education dominating teaching Instagram is in many ways different than what those of us who no longer teach in PK-12 environments may believe.  The #teachersofinstagram have taught us innovative classroom practices.  For example, just this weekend, a third-grade teacher we follow on Instagram posted an anchor chart she made with her students about consent.  The post has since gone viral and national news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC ran stories about her post.  Popular education Twitter accounts have tweeted about it with many prominent voices in education boosting its’ reach.  Teachers are using their social media presence to get the word out about their work.  They are telling their own stories.  We are simply listening. We then use our resources as partners to respond in ways that are useful and supportive of the unteaching and unlearning of flawed practices with a focus on replacing them with better strategies.

We aim to grow our reach in order to use our platform to inform our research but also to provide a hungry, deeply committed community of educators with the resources they are seeking to unlearn ineffective practices.  Additionally, providing preservice teachers access to teacher leaders on social media who are making their innovative, creative work visible, shows what is possible.  The #teachersofinstagram are modeling best practices in real time with real students in real classrooms.  We believe partnering with these teachers and learning from them could be a critical 21st century step in bridging the much-talked-about research to practice gap.

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

10 Things You Should Never Do as a College Professor

This article had me thinking today about all the ways college professors have historically and may still get in the way of student learning.

So, I wrote a quick little response.  It’s just a start.

Forget your privilege.  You went to college, for many years, and many brilliant people helped you get where you are today.  You are a college professor because your doctoral advisor saw potential in you, taught you the wily ways of academia while guiding your research, your writing, and your learning.  Doctoral programs are an amazing opportunity to read, talk, learn, grow.  You had that opportunity.  You are undoubtedly changed from the experience.  Yes, it was hard.  Yes, you made sacrifices.  Yes, you had uncaring professors along the way.  But you had an opportunity that many only dream of.  Never forget that.

You have also earned your degrees.  You’ve secured that much sought-after tenure track/tenured position.  You have accomplished so much.  But can you really not remember what those undergraduate days were like?  The stress, the lack of sleep, the bad food, the no money, the roommate stuff?

Require expensive books.  Particularly when you then assign only two chapters.  Choose accessible readings.  Provide multitudinous means of accessing readings.  Assign readings intentionally and engage students in applied learning to grow their surface understanding from the reading.  You’re the expert.  Teach.

Assume.  Unless you have trust with your students, you can only assume you know nothing about their lived experiences.

Use Grades As Punishment.  Grades should reflect progress toward mastery of content.  Period.  That’s it.  That’s what grades are.  Communication about learning.  If you use grades to threaten, punish, or coerce students, you’re doing it wrong.  Docking a letter grade for a late assignment is unethical.  Maybe try asking the student why the assignment was late, or better yet, have a relationship with the student that allows her to come to you first.

Office Hours Only.  You do know your students have full lives outside of your course, right?  They have jobs, maybe kids and families, other courses, commitments, responsibilities.  If you set your office hours at the time convenient for you and you are inflexible in meeting with students outside of that time, you are communicating that your time is more valuable than your student’s.

Think Your Time Is More Valuable Than Your Students’.  It’s not.

Expect Students To Improve Without Feedback.  Feedback is teaching – it’s an iterative process and, as the teacher, your participation is required.  If you hand back papers with letters or points on the top, your students have no information about how to improve.  Assessing learning is feedback for you on your instruction, your assignment, your students’ learning.  Provide transparent feedback so your students can progress toward mastery of the content.  Yes, it takes more time – it’s also your job, do it well.

Fail To Teach.  Additionally, if students address you inappropriately in an email, provide them feedback to improve.  As a female professor, I invariably get emails addressed to Mrs. Newton.  I reply with a “Hi, Student, my name is either Dr. Newton or Jen once we’ve actually met in person.”  Guess what.  That’s all it takes.  Rather than being frustrated or writing a heated, ego-driven post on social media, provide feedback, tell students what you expect, allow them to meet your expectations.

Waste Students’ Time.  Busy work, extraneous readings, anything that does not result in extending students’ depth and breadth of knowledge, is a waste of time.  Sure, you can assign anything you want, you can give students 10 points for bringing a dog to class and they will beg, borrow, and steal to get a dog, but what are you teaching?  That teachers are manipulative and that learning is at least secondary to control.  Use their time wisely.

Shame or Condescend Students.  To colleagues, friends, on social media.  Ever.  Every time I see one of those “It’s on the syllabus” memes, I die a little inside.  You are imperfect.  You forget about the occasional faculty meeting, deadline, oil change.  Hopefully, there are people in your life who help you out.  Maybe you could be that person for a student.  Yes, they’re imperfect.  So are you.  Choose empathy.

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Commitment Logs

We know students don’t really read the assigned reading, right?  There are loads of reasons for that.  Textbooks are cost prohibitive, the reading is cumbersome, too long, irrelevant from the student perspective, it’s tedious . . . just to name a few.  As instructors, we implement various strategies to encourage, incentivize, motivate/manipulate students into doing the reading.

I’ve done it.

Reading checks.  Guided notes.  Entrance tickets.  Summary notecards.  Come with three questions from the readings.

For a few semesters, I started off with reading checks that asked specific questions regarding the content from the reading.  And graded them for accuracy.  3/5.  1/5.  5/5.  Then, when my students learned that I was serious about reading checks and they came to class having read, I would give them a sheet of paper that said, “tell me your childhood pet’s name.”  (I didn’t do this specifically.  But I could have.)

Because the point is the reading, right?  Not the reading check.

But by assigning point value to the reading check, that is why I was communicating was important.  And I didn’t actually believe the reading check itself was important.  I did more reading on the evidence and rationale in the “ungrading” model and decided to move my gotcha points into partnerships.  This is where commitment logs were born.

Commitment logs are individual, self assessment accountability tools I use to engage students in their own learning.  I set learning intentions and success criteria for the class session but I ask students to set their own learning intentions and success criteria for our time together.  Sometimes students will write something like “I will stay awake for the whole class” or “I will learn three new things.”  Wherever they are, I’m good with it.

It’s not fancy.  It’s just an ongoing commitment to their learning, their own accountability.  Because some days their heads and hearts are not in my engaging, brilliant pedagogy.  And that’s okay.  They set goals for themselves.  And, more often than not, they exceed their goals.  I think there is something to the act of writing it down, of focusing on an intention, that allows them to attend to their time in class with me a little differently.  Reading checks never affected engagement.  Commitment logs do.

At the end of class, they make an exit statement.  They write about if they met their success criteria, why they did or did not, what they learned, remaining questions they have, concerns they experienced during class, anything they want.  And I respond to every single one prior to our next meeting.

I did ask a midterm and final course evaluation question about the commitment logs.  Students were overwhelmingly positive about the activity.  Since, I respond to each person each week, I am also able to keep a quick record of our relationship as it develops, the student’s self perception and assessment, and concerns or questions that appear more than once across students.  It has unexpectedly provided a relationship-building strategy as well.

I’ll post the blank document here for anyone who may want to try it.  Let me know how it goes for you!  How do you engage your students in their learning and in self assessment?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Pencil Fairy Project

We are so fortunate in that we often have the opportunity to partner with teachers in learning, problem solving, and improving practices.  Inevitably, across various contexts and grade levels and locales, teachers report frustration with students for not having pencils.

Pencils.

We kept hearing it.  We’d ask questions like, “What frustrates you so much about the pencil issue?” and the responses were varied.  Some said it was an indicator of showing up unprepared, a lack of respect for them or their class, a lack of responsibility.  But, for us, it always felt like a resource issue.  Teachers should have all the pencils they need to engage their learners in all the ways.

Pencils.

When we are confronted with beliefs about what kids “should” do or have, we are always mindful of all the ways we – as adults and professionals – drop the ball.  We are often without a writing utensil when we need it most, yet there is always someone nearby willing to share.  We know these teachers would give us a pencil if we asked!  They would never tell us we were disrespectful for not having one or take it as a lack of our preparedness for our time together.  It happens.  People forget pencils.  And all kinds of other things!  But, for some reason, kids not having pencils was a very frustrating and pervasive problem for teachers.

Pencils.

The more we talked about it, the more it seemed like it was not really about pencils at all.  It was about resources.  Supplies, yes, but also time!  We have seen teachers tag their pencils with identifying markers and create check in/check out systems for pencils, some schools have pencil machines next to the soda machines!

So, we thought maybe this is a small way we could alleviate a huge frustration for teachers.  We could get pencils to teachers and kids.  Lots of pencils.  Loads of pencils.  Enough pencils that no one has to man a sign in/sign out for pencils or sweat a broken pencil, or worry about trying to find one on the floor to avoid being in trouble.  What if we could just get pencils to teachers?  Would that one teeny tiny thing do anything at all to take a teeny tiny load off teachers’ overwhelming list?

We crowdsourced pencils from our friends and families generosity using social media and Amazon wishlists.  We connect directly with teachers using teachingisintellectual’s Instagram and send as many pencils as we can to each teachers’ request.  We take pencils to every professional development we get to do now because it is one small thing we can do for our teacher partners.

Pencils.

We’ve distributed over 20,000 pencils now and we hope it’s just the beginning.  We advocate for fully funded public education and will continue to fight that fight.  Meanwhile, we will contribute as many pencils as we can to as many teachers who need them.

Drop some pencils off at a school near you today.  Do it again next month.  Kids need pencils and it is something you can do.  And pay off an overdrawn lunch account while you’re there too.

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Recess Is A Right

I posted a picture on our social media of a tweet from the 2006 MN Teacher of the Year Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens that read:  Advice to a new elementary school teacher:  never, every withhold recess from your students for any reason.  They need the activity and you need them to have the activity.  It shouldn’t be viewed as a privilege, but a part of your daily curriculum.

The post generated conversation which is awesome.  In this post, I hope to provide some context for recess as a right, not a privilege and some alternative strategies.

First, remember, behavior is communication and it always always always serves a purpose.  You can read a bit more about that here.  Once we determine the function of the behavior, we can find more appropriate ways to meet that function for/with the learner.  Okay, so let’s play this out with recess.

Basic scenario:  Learner is off task in class, out of seat, what have you.  Teacher subscribes to the “you waste my time, I’ll take your time” philosophy and responds with taking away 5-10-half-all of recess.

Behavior is communication.

  • What is the function of the off task behavior?  Is the learner avoiding the work?  Is the learner unsure what to do?  Is the learner “bored”?  Is the learner seeking attention from the teacher or from friends?
  • Are any of these functions met by reducing/eliminating recess?

Nope.

(Side question:  have you ever taken recess from a child one time and never ever again?  Does it every work to change the behavior, teach the behavior we want to see, or is it a punishment we invoke because we’re frustrated?)

Why do we offer time in the school day for free movement?  Is recess really “their” time?  What is the role of recess in teaching and learning?  Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control endorse recess with policy statements outlining the cognitive, social emotional, physical, and academic benefits of regular unstructured play time for elementary age learners.  The slow whittling down/removal of recess has never been rooted in the evidence of development, teaching and learning, or best practice.  It has always been about increasing instructional time.  But, recess actually HELPS learners attend to task, focus, learn.

Let’s look at it another way.

Think about a time you’ve been in a long faculty meeting, professional development day, webinar, or something similar.  Even if the content is engaging, you may find yourself getting restless.  You may get up to go to the bathroom, get a drink, stand by the wall for a bit.  You may stretch in your seat, check your phone, or pick at your nail polish.  You can do what you need to do in order to get your attention back to the topic at hand – you can take self regulated brain breaks because you’re an adult.  If your admin or PD provider told you that getting out of your chair to stretch your legs would mean you do not get the scheduled break time everyone else gets, you would probably have strong feelings about that.  Because we all need breaks – whether we’ve “earned” them or not.

Taking away recess is a power move, not a teaching move.  Reframing all of our actions and reactions through a teaching lens means recess is not a bonus or a reward, but a critical and non negotiable part of a learner’s work.

Now that we know taking away bits, pieces, all of recess does not support our end goal of teaching and learning, what can/should we do instead?

Tackle the function.  Meet the need in an appropriate way.

So, if it’s escape, build in break cards, mindful moments, a quick “errand” that incorporates a little movement.

If it’s attention getting, what is driving it?  Is it teacher attention or peer attention that’s desired?  Use proximity, room arrangement, teacher talk cards or, if you can, take just a moment, get on the child’s level, and ask them what they need.  That very well may be enough.

They’re communicating with you.  Let’s be listeners, teachers, learners about our learners.  Restricting their movement and limiting their freedom creates barriers in our relationships and does not teach the behavior we want to see.

Make recess a right, not a privilege.  What are some other learner rights you feel are non-negotiable?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Engagement: The Holy Grail of Teaching

Recently, a colleague asked me for recommendations of books about developing growth mindset.  He wanted to be able to recommend something to parents whose children are “apathetic toward school.”

Learners.  Apathetic.  Toward.  School.

Why may that be?

Okay, yes, I can collect some literature.  There are most certainly books.  (I always always always recommend Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? for starters).  AND, I always insist we consider the causes behind those apathetic behaviors rather than the behaviors themselves.  Treat the disease rather than the symptoms, amiright?

So why may learners present as apathetic toward school?

Here are four of my ideas – in no particular order – followed by some quick and easy ways to create interest for those apathetic learners.

  1. School (as in, the building and the people within it) is not welcoming, safe, inviting, accepting, or engaging.
  2. Nothing being taught is relevant in “the real world.”
  3. Anxiety and depression are real and are experienced by children in k-12 settings.
  4. What’s in it for the learner?  Can learners see any benefits from their participation in school?

I said no particular order but I do think #1 is a big one.  Maybe the biggest one.  Why should learners care about school?  Do schools care about learners?  I mean every single learner?  The difficult learner?  The apathetic learner?  The angry learner?  The defiant learner?  It is our job as educators to gain the cooperation of our learners and that often means we have to dig deep.  Forming relationships, human connections, is the critical component of gaining cooperation.  We cannot have successful teaching and learning spaces without meaningful relationships.

Ask that apathetic kid who s/he cares about at school?

Ask that apathetic kid who cares about him/her at school?

Does that apathetic kid feel safe at school?  Feel seen?  Feel valued?  Feel like s/he can contribute in a meaningful way?

Schools typically have one speed – busy!  There are a million things happening in every moment.  Kids, staff, administrators, volunteers, student teachers and practicum teachers, custodians, specialists, researchers, and more all moving within the walls of the school at any given time, quickly, late for the next thing, rushed, distracted, B U S Y.

Is it really so unbelievable that some learners may be overwhelmed, intimidated, exhausted, or shut down by that context?  By connecting with individual “apathetic” learners, we can determine what is causing their lack of engagement, their apathy, their distance and develop strategies to make school a learning environment that works.

#2 ahhh “the real world.”  Such a weird phrase.  What is the real world?  Where is it?  What about K-12 education is not the real world?  This term always strikes me as a flawed and there are just so many reasons why.

  • Loads of kids experience more “real world” before they get out of bed in the morning than I have in a lifetime.  Food and housing insecurity, poverty, and family issues are all “real world” experiences that kids navigate every day.
  • The idea that if we extend kindness to learners and reward the behaviors we want to see, we are not preparing them for the real world.  Right.  Because in the real world, I get paid to go to work . . . or I don’t go.  No one does anything for nothing in return.  Including you.  Including learners.  It’s “real world” and okay to reward hard work.
  • The real world includes loads of problems in need of solving.  Our K-12 learners can and should be tackling real world problems in need of solving too.

#3 Schools need help.  Teachers cannot meet the very real trauma and mental health needs learners bring with them to the classroom.  We need social workers on our teams.  We need counselors with actual resources to support learners, families, and teachers.  We need psychologists and psychiatrists with expertise in child trauma and early childhood/adolescent mental health.  We need resources.  Learners who disengage from school and disconnect from preferred people and activities need support.  What may look to some as apathy toward school may very well be a plea for help.

#4 School, in and of itself, is not super motivating.  Is it?  Teachers make all the difference in this regard.  The difference between a teacher a learner looks forward to seeing versus a teacher a learner dreads makes the difference in a learner’s day, year, future.  It takes ONE adult to see a kid, to really acknowledge their presence, their uniqueness, their humanity.  ONE adult can make all the difference in the life of a kid.  We have to be that ONE adult.  Not for every single learner, of course.  But if we all step up, we should be able to be collectively find ONE adult for every learner out there who is slipping through the cracks, ghosting through the school day, approaching learning with apathy.

What if we took responsibility for our apathetic learners?  What if we saw the onus of engagement in ourselves rather than in our learners?  What if we sought to understand the “why” of apathetic learners rather than just the “how” of their apathetic behaviors?

Talk to me.  What do you think?  How do you engage apathetic learners?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

We Need To Talk About Families

Every family is doing the best they can with the reality they are in.

Full stop.

I’ll say it again.  Every family is doing the best they can with the reality they are in.  Period.

You may say, But, Jen, I have a family who **enter an atrocity adults enact upon children**.  That family does NOT care.  And I would respond that that family needs intervention, mental health support, positive parenting training, an influx of resources to build their skills as parents and humans.  But I would continue to assert that the family is doing the best they know how to do.  Our society does not rally around strong parenting skills, bonding, attachment, or positive parenting.  Families need our support and our judgement free listening.  Blame gets us nowhere.

On social media, I often see teachers posting blogs written by teachers pleaing “for parents to STOP their ‘bizarrely lenient attitude toward disciplining children'” (to quote one such blog that made the rounds most recently).  There are countless parent shaming and blaming memes and posts on Instagram that make my stomach flip flopped.  Blaming families is the stand up comedy equivalent of punching down.  It’s easy, sure, but it is not productive.  You’ll find lots of others willing to jump on board with you, but it only serves to create a common enemy.  One you cannot afford to have.  Families are not the enemy.

Teaching and learning is not us vs them.

Teaching and learning is not families vs teachers.

Teaching and learning is not teachers vs administrators.

It is the hardest work, the most challenging work – intellectually, emotionally, and physically.  And to bring all stakeholders – families, administrators, learners, communities – into our teaching and learning means finding strengths, seeking common ground, bridging gaps in understanding.

If you find yourself struggling with the families in your classroom, your school community, or more broadly, here are a few suggestions.  “They” won’t change but you can!  You are only in charge of yourself, your own actions and beliefs.

  1. Learn about yourself.  Invest in unpacking your biases and beliefs.  We ALL have them so get busy identifying them and understanding them, how they are serving you, and in what ways they are creating barriers in your work.  If you are white and female, do some work on race.  Read Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want To Talk About Race” and Shelly Tochluk’s “Witnessing Whiteness:  The Need to Talk About Race and How To Do It” for starters.  Then keep reading. And talking.  Get uncomfortable.
  2. Do home visits!  I cannot overemphasize this and I do not care how old your students are.  Meet outside of school.  Go to their homes if they’re willing to host you.  If they aren’t open to that (which is absolutely their right!) then meet at a park, a McDonald’s, or a community center.
  3. Call three families each week to tell them something positive about their child.  Every child.  Take note of attributes unique to each learner – post them in the classroom if you need the reminder!  Keep learner strengths in the center of your work!

Families are imperfect.  We won’t love each and every one but we must strengthen where we can, pour in where we can, build up where we can.  What strategies do you use to lift up hard to reach families?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

We Need To Talk About Punishment

Recently, after working with teachers on shifting our approach from punishing to teaching, a teacher in attendance emailed me saying, “At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to “buy in to it.”But the more I thought about it, the more compelled I felt.”  Such a powerful statement and one I’ve thought about since.  Let’s talk this through.

Everything we do has consequences.  Every decision we make has consequences.

Punishment, however, is not a natural consequence of an action or decision.  Punishment is enacted upon us “as retribution for an offense” (Merriam-Webster).

Kids make mistakes.  They do things that don’t make sense, that we don’t understand, that we can’t explain.  There are consequences for those mistakes.  If you forget your lunch, you eat whatever the cafeteria gives you.  That is a natural consequence for forgetting your lunch.  A punishment for forgetting your lunch would be a teacher taking away recess or imposing detention on you in addition to the natural consequence of a fruit cup and carrot sticks for lunch.  Is that necessary?  Does it teach?

The thing we’re selling – that the above mentioned teacher was unsure about buying, was the belief that, as teachers, we must teach.  Teach the behaviors we want to see.  Teach them again.  Reteach.  Reinforce.

Punishment doesn’t teach.

I have a tendency to drive too fast.  Rarely, I get speeding tickets.  It stings for a bit.  I pay the fine (punishment) but it does not have a lasting effect on my behavior.  I still speed.  I just hope I don’t get caught.

Our learners approach our punishments similarly.  Okay, think of the last kid from whom you took five minutes of recess.  Was it a one-time consequence?  Did the behavior you were modifying disappear?  Probably not.  Generally, kids who miss minutes of recess, miss those minutes of recess frequently.  Which is all the evidence we need that the punishment is not changing the behavior.

Maybe we are not intending for it to change the behavior?  Maybe we just want to show the learner who is boss.

Either way, the single most important factor in any teaching/learning dyad is the relationship between the teacher and the learner.  Kids do not learn from people they do not like or people whom they perceive do not like them.  We must like kids!  (I know you’re rolling your eyes at me right now but this is a critical characteristic of strong, persistent educators!).  Tell kids the things they do that you like!  Ask them questions about themselves and listen to their answers!  Be intentional about this.  Make note of the learners you’re most likely to miss and plan your connections with those students.  Document your connections each day to make your patterns visible and give yourself some insight into where you may need to put more effort.  Not every learner comes to us naturally so make it a priority to identify those on the fringes.  Build your community from the outside in.

As the teacher, you get to decide your role in your classroom.  You can be the police officer, the warden, the guide, the zookeeper, or the facilitator.  You can catch kids making mistakes, breaking rules, being noncompliant or you can gain their cooperation through intentional relationship building, empathy, and understanding.

How do you build community in your classroom?  What challenges do you face in gaining the cooperation of your learners and how we can help you solve them?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Embracing Failure

I am a big fan of mistake making.  Well, not the making of the mistakes part so much but of the learning from mistakes, expecting mistakes, embracing mistakes.  What if we flip the narrative on failure and, since we know mistakes happen, we anticipate them and respond to them with enthusiasm?

Okay, stick with me here.  Enthusiasm may be a little . . . enthusiastic?

Looking back on a 20 year career in education, I see so many mistakes, of course, and some outright fails.  I’ll never ever forget the time I, with four other teachers, took 32 4-year-olds on a bus field trip.  Left the school, counted everyone multiple times, went to find my seat with my buddy, only to realize he was still sitting in the exact spot – AT THE SCHOOL – where I asked him to wait for me.  We turned the bus around, of course, and raced back to him (he was still waiting patiently) but I could not shake that off.  Even now it haunts me.

Some mistakes are bigger than others. Every last one is a learning opportunity.

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by mentors and colleagues and friends who embrace my failures with me, who lift me up, who help me see the learning opportunities presented in my failures.  I’m currently in the midst of my biggest professional failure yet.  In that failure, though, so many opportunities have developed.  Opportunities for growth, for challenge, for learning, for teaching, for building resilience, for growing my network, for failing out loud so maybe others can do the same.  Failure also, of course, invites self doubt, shame, embarrassment, to name a few.  So, as I reflect on my own mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, and failures, I often consider how our interactions with learners shape their relationship with failure.  How did I learn how to fail and how am I teaching others about failure?

Well, it’s a delicate balance, right?

We want to embrace failure as a part of learning.  Einstein said, (according to the internet) “You never fail until you stop trying.”  We want to build resiliency in learners.  We want our learners to always be willing and ready to try try again.  We know perfectionism puts limitations on learners’ willingness to take chances, ask questions, seek creativity. However, we also don’t want to embrace mistakes to the point where we accept failure.  Failure has to sting a little in order for it to motivate us, right?

I teach and learn with college students.  Say what you will about this generation of young people but I will defend their work ethic, their creativity, and their dedication to my last breath.  I see a fear of failure in them, a fear of risk taking, a fear of creative problem solving, though. Not because, they want their hands held, but because the consequences of any mistake have been so so steep.  My coursework is ungraded, due dates are flexible, engagement and iterative feedback is essential.  Students find this terrifying.  They struggle to trust that I won’t come with a guillotine on the last day.  Mistake making and embracing failure requires trust.

Teaching and learning depends on trusting relationships.  Full stop.

How do you build learning communities with high expectations, meaningful and trusting relationships, and a willingness to fail out loud?

We must be someone students can trust to launch them from failures into learning.  In what ways do you fail out loud with your learners and help them do the same?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Course Evaluations as Thoughtful Feedback

It’s that time of the semester again.

Course evaluations.  True confession time:  I don’t actually read mine.  I am far too thin skinned for that.  I send them to a trusted friend who reads them, tells me the things I need to know to improve my teaching and the course, and we leave the rest unsaid.  I read them eventually.  But right at semester’s end, at peak exhaustion, still raw from the experiences the semester brought, is not the ideal time for me to absorb the feedback.

All it takes is one.  One student to say I “have strong opinions” or “sometimes get off topic” and I’m not thinking any more about what I can learn from that feedback but about how I failed a student or that their perception was that I wasted valuable course time.

See?  It’s best if I don’t read them right away.

I also talk to students about how to write course evaluations.  They are clearly and without any doubt a flawed mechanism for evaluating teaching.  Students are not pedagogical experts, the measures on most evaluations are not meaningful assessments of teaching and learning, and many instructors find ways to dismiss both positive and negative student reports.  However, that doesn’t mean we can not and should not attempt to get the most out of them.  The experiences of learners in our environments are important.  I would argue the experiences of learners may be the most important.  Meaningful learning cannot occur without meaningful relationships.  So the feedback matters.

Students tend to approach course evaluations in one of two ways.

  1. Dismiss them.  Who has time for that?  No one reads them anyway and nothing changes.
  2. Rip them.  Students have waited all semester for the chance to unleash their rage, contempt, dislike of their instructor.  Now is that time.

In response to the first approach, while course evaluations are not great, they do matter.  Depending on the university and the department and the instructor, they may matter in big ways or small ways.  However, if you do not complete them, they do not matter in any way.  Complete them.  Thoughtfully.

As for the second approach, this is the quickest, easiest way to ensure that your evaluation will not matter.  It will be immediately dismissed by the instructor and those evaluating the instructor because they will attribute your anger and frustration to you, and not to your instructor.  Your words and your experience cannot be heard if it’s presented emotionally rather than thoughtfully.

I teach people to be effective, inclusive educators.  Therefore, I must BE an effective, inclusive educator.  Part of effectively teaching is providing meaningful, thoughtful feedback to learners.  I aim to provide ongoing feedback to those learning with me and I ask them to do the same for me.  So when course evaluation time rolls around, we talk about how to provide constructive feedback to instructors.  I guide my students to consider two big ideas first.

  • In what ways did you invest in your own learning this semester and in what ways did you hinder your own learning this semester?
  • In what ways did I invest in your learning this semester and in what ways did I hinder your learning this semester?

Focus on the teaching and learning.  Take responsibility for your learning.  It’s okay for you to dislike my personality, my clothes, my tendency to talk about Netflix at the start of class.  Do those things hinder your learning?  If no, keep it to yourself.  Tell me how I can improve.  Tell me what I should keep doing and why it helped you learn.  Tell me how you would have benefited more from specific learning experiences so I can be better the next time.  Provide me with feedback as you would a learner in your class – tailored for my reflection and improvement.

Those are course evaluations I would read.

How do you approach course evaluations, both as a learner and as a teacher?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.