Insight from a hike: A story about a personal journey and a metaphor about learning

Four and a half years ago, I started a journey towards a Doctorate of Education in K-12 Leadership. At the time I was immersed in the world of standards-based learning: what it looked like, what it didn’t look like, and how to get there as painlessly as possible. It was all the rage. Elementary and middle school teachers were diving in and making good attempts at shifting their thinking. High school teachers were hesitant. I really wanted to research why some high school teachers were risk-averse to change and what leaders could do to help move toward implementing this initiative and others. 

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My final study was published three months ago. It’s already obsolete, well at least my purpose for writing it is. In these past three months, I have learned more about learning, and what is essential, than I had in all my years as a learner, a teacher, a leader, and a researcher. The current pandemic has given me a new perspective, a better understanding, and a new imperative towards essential learning and skills.

In fact, through the following story, I hope that my vision is clear.

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The Background

I found a new hobby this summer: hiking. Even though I have spent the last 8 summers at our home in the Rocky Mountains, I never really wanted to walk up and down steep mountains for fun. However, I needed to find my fitness again; it’s been a while since I was regularly active. My husband, Shane, offered to hike with me at first. I said no. I wanted to do this on my own. I needed to do this on my own. I started slow and easy. I took breaks as often as I needed. I didn’t challenge myself too far; I stayed on familiar trails and terrain. It was my church and my meditation time. It was quiet. 

After a few weeks, I could tell I was ready for something new and challenging. I was also ready for a partner to help challenge me, lead me, invite me to set our pace, try new trails. It was on one of these hikes, with Shane, that I started to relate our journey to what I was thinking about learning. Today, though, I took to the trail alone. I hope I never look back.

The Hike

As the sun shone through my bedroom window this morning, I stretched and started wondering, 

Where will I go today? What am I up for? A short hike or a long hike? A challenging trail with rough, steep terrain or a meandering switchback through the sagebrush? Where will I go today?

I was excited to see what I could accomplish in the next few hours.

I chose a 4.5-mile moderate hike (95 minutes) with plenty of flat space for light jogging- this is where I am trying to challenge myself. I’ve done it once before but going the opposite way. I chose a solo journey today. I wanted to wrap my head around this new thinking about learning on my own. Shane isn’t quite as geeky about learning as I am (especially during summer vacation). 

I first read the trailhead marker. I like to know where I am and where I am going. I started slowly to warm up my legs, my lungs, my brain. I picked up my pace as the trail became less rocky, smoother, more level. Then I started jogging. At the point that I knew the trail was beginning to incline and I would have to slow down, I chose a landmark that would be my “finish line” for jogging. I had to make it to that landmark, though. That was my short goal. I celebrated by looking back toward what I had just accomplished and looked at the scenery around me. 

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As I continued the hike up, I recognized the moment I needed a break. I had been moving along at a good pace for quite some time, but I wasn’t challenging myself as much as I could be. I needed to stop, refresh my body, redirect my brain, breathe, and set a new short goal. I will jog to that group of trees up there in the distance. I can do this. My stamina and grit are back.

Once I made it to my next “finish line” I noticed something ahead. A pile of bones. 

What type of animal bones are these? What killed this animal? How long have these bones been here? What other animals live in these mountains? Are they watching me right now?  

So many questions. I was excited to do some research and find out some of the answers to my questions. 

I also noticed life around me. Flowers beside the trail. How did these get here? There weren’t any other flowers nearby. Look at how different they are; how beautiful they are.

A crossroads is ahead. Three trails to choose from. Which way shall I go? It is my choice; and I know that each choice will get me to my final destination. Having this choice is empowering and exciting.

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The journey to the top is worth it. I struggled to get up here, but look where I ended up. If I hadn’t challenged myself, I wouldn’t have seen this. The hardest part is over. As they say, it’s all downhill from here.

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Even though the hardest part is over, my journey back down the trail must still be my best effort. I still set short goals. I still kept my heart rate up. I did not get lazy. I reminded myself of all I learned and what was worth remembering. I revised my thinking for my next hike. 

My celebration came when I crossed my final finish line. There was someone waiting for me. They were proud of my effort.

How’d you do? How’d it feel? What was the best part? What was most challenging? What are you thinking for your next journey?

From the Trail to the Classroom

How can you use the hiking experience to focus on essential learning and skills, motivate students, and keep them on the right path of essential learning?

The hiking experience in 7 easy steps

  1. Set the trail: where are you going and how are you getting there?
  2. Choose a solo or partner journey: some people need a buddy. Someone to mix the social and academic aspects together. Someone to lead the way. Someone to challenge them. Someone who will slow them down when needed. Some people need to “go it alone.” Sometimes we might change our minds in the middle of our journey and wish we had chosen differently. 
  3. Set short goals along the way: to keep motivation high and continue to move forward. Small wins get you to a huge victory!
  4. Take useful breaks: Use this time to recharge, reset, redirect. Then get back at it!
  5. Be curious along the way: What do you notice and wonder as you move toward your goal? What new learning are you thinking about? What did you learn that you didn’t know before?
  6. Don’t ease up on the downhill: The hardest part may be behind you, but you aren’t at the finish line yet. Keep giving your best effort.
  7. Celebrate the journey: Have a “cheerleader” meet you at the end. Reflect and be proud of this hard work. Plan for your next journey.

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We have a moment, right now, to take a break and reset our thinking about learning. What is really important for students to know and be able to do? How will you be their guide during this year’s journey? What choices will students get to make about their path? What questions will they get to ask and answer that will take them further, deeper into the forest of understanding? How will you get students excited to wake up in the morning as wonder…

“Where will I go today?”

How about a Round of Empathy: In 2 Parts

Part 2: Empathy for Seniors

Background: My husband is a high school Social Studies teacher. I am a Curriculum Coordinator at the same school. We have 2 high school children (a sophomore and a senior), who attend this school. 

I’m thinking that this post is for teachers and parents of the Senior Class of 2020. I can only give the view of my senior and what I am noticing but I am sure that others can relate and surely have more to add. 

Tradition… Interrupted

There is a tradition at this school. Seniors write long letters, by hand, on their graduation cards to their friends, parents of their friends, and most loved teachers. They start writing these letters as soon as the grad cards arrive. Some write as many as 40 or more. Except for this year. The cards are sequestered in the high school office. The campus is closed to families for the remainder of the year. The school is figuring out how to get everything to the seniors.

This is one of many traditions at our school, but this is the one most affecting our senior. It is getting in the way of everything else. It is consuming his days and nights. Who can think about AP Environment Science or Calculus or English at a time like this? These letters must be written, revised, and written again on these special cards in the neatest smallest handwriting ever! Except for this year. Our senior is making his own cards out of cardstock he borrowed from my office. He is putting a lot of consideration into the design of the front AND back of the cards as well as what is going to be personally written in each one. 

This is one reason that schoolwork is being put on the back burner. I have to let it go and let him come to grips with what he is prioritizing right now.

A Case of the What-Ifs

Our senior has known since November where he was going for university. It was his only choice. We visited last summer on a college tour and he knew immediately that Western Colorado University was the school for him. The campus is lovely. The people we met were his kind of people. It felt like a community and reminded him of everything he loved about his high school community.

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Last month, he chose a roommate and they speak most days. They are getting to know each other, their histories, and their hopes as college students. 

As the days have passed, though, the What-Ifs have started creeping into our senior’s daily thoughts.

what if

What if we can’t move into our dorm in August? Where will I live? What will I do?

What if I have to live at home by myself? I’ll need a license. I’ll need a car. I’ll need a job. I’ll need to learn how to care for a house and myself. Should I get a roommate?

What if my family can’t travel home for Christmas because COVID is still around? I won’t see them for almost a year. I don’t have any other family nearby. I might not be able to travel east to see grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I might be alone for a long time.

What if I can’t do it? I can’t be that kid who still lives with Mom and Dad. You know, the one who graduated but still hangs out with the high school kids. 

What if? What if? What if? What if? What if? What if?

This is another reason that schoolwork is being put on the back burner. I have to support him, his worries, his reality, and let him come to grips with what he is prioritizing right now.

There’s No Cap on Empathy, Right?

Are his classes important? Yes. Is this experience showing us whether or not he can be a successful independent learner or a responsible adult? At first, I would have said yes. I no longer believe that this experience is actually telling us anything about who our kids are as independent learners or responsible humans any more than it’s telling us where we fall on the continuum of perfect parents or amazing teachers. We are all just trying to survive.

What IS important right now?

Loving our children. Loving our students. Showing grace. 

I have received a few emails from teachers over the last few weeks about our senior’s missing assignments or projects. I am so impressed with the care they have shown; the patience they have. I have so much empathy for all of these teachers- they did not sign up for this. I also have so much empathy for our seniors- they did not sign up for this, either. I just hope that there isn’t a cap on empathy.

How about a Round of Empathy: In 2 Parts

Background: My husband is a high school Social Studies teacher. I am a Curriculum Coordinator at the same school. We have 2 high school children (a sophomore and a senior), who attend this school.

Part 1: Empathy for Teachers

This past Friday morning, I was pouring a cup of coffee in the kitchen. My husband was holding a virtual synchronous class with one of his AP World History classes in the same room (his workspace is in our kitchen). I could tell he was getting frustrated. 

Who am I kidding, we are all beyond getting frustrated.

Earlier in the week, he shared a discussion post using Parlay to ask students to choose which option they preferred as a way forward to prepare for the AP exam as a class and to comment on one other student’s post. 

Parlay Discussion Post

Goal: Try to decide how we look at AP World History Review from April 12th – March 21st 

Option 1: Start to use the review videos released by the College Board. The videos typically are created by AP readers/teachers who approach the review unit by unit. The units are divided into subunits with lots of instructions about how/why the content could be incorporated into writing for the Modified, 2020 APWH test.

Option 2: Continue to use a variety of resources to review the content of each APWH unit. The activities include a variety of shorter videos and vocabulary activities. 

Discussion Question

Which option do you like the best? Give a rationale as to why you think this option would work best for you and/or the class.

Peer Feedback Instructions

You are expected to respond to at least one other student’s discussion answer. You can politely disagree with them (give a rationale for your disagreement) or concur with them (give a rationale for your agreement).

Some students did not complete this simple task. Others completed it with seemingly little care. Maybe the students were thinking that the teacher knows best and they will review in whatever way he thinks is best for them. For many of them, this is their first AP course. They don’t know what they don’t know.

However, let’s look at it from the teacher’s point-of-view. 

As a school, we are pretty deep into our COVID-19 Distance Learning experience. Not China-deep, but Asia-deep. We are in the second phase of our thinking now that we know this will be our reality for the remainder of the school year. Here’s what that looks like:

Phase II Focus:

  • Essential learning and assessing
  • Letting go of the “nice to know” curriculum
  • Engaging and motivating projects/activities/performance assessments
  • Not burning out (teachers or students)

So, with this in mind, I know the teacher from this story was considering these aspects as well as other relevant data. For instance, students have made it clear in surveys that they appreciate any chance to collaborate with their peers, take part in discussions, and have some choice/ownership of their learning. Parlay was a new tool that he thought would be fun for kids, let them interact with each other, and give them a voice in the decision about how to review and prepare for the AP exam.

What the students didn’t know was how much time it took to learn the tool, set it up, create the post, try it out, revise it, and publish it for each class.

The discussion was posted on Monday. There was a reminder on Wednesday, and by Friday morning’s synchronous class, well, let’s just say that my husband had to use his teacher voice.

He was honest. He was vulnerable. He let the kids know that he was frustrated and working a heck of a lot harder than they were. He actually listed the steps he took to create the discussion board and the time it took from his weekend. 

Remember earlier when I said they don’t know what they don’t know? This is the empathy part. 

In class, teachers have the toolbox that they have been digging into for years. In Distance Learning, it’s a whole new toolbox. Students don’t know that. Students don’t realize that teachers are learning new tech tools, new ways to communicate and collaborate, rethinking units, and completely redesigning assessments.

I think it’s more than okay to be honest and vulnerable with our students. I also think that students who understand exactly how hard their teachers are working to create meaningful learning experiences at home will be more engaged and more motivated

During your check-ins with students this week, open up to them about how hard this is and what you have learned. Show them. It’s not about gaining sympathy or making them feel guilty. We are all human. When they see just how much you are doing for them, I hope some of them might try a little harder, give a little more.

How do you share your own learning and your own struggles with students? Let me know!

Ginny

Hoping to post Part 2: Empathy for Seniors soon!

Analyzing Authentic Assessments

As we continue to practice aligning assessments to standards, it’s important to not only reflect on student data but to plan for improving results for all learners. Framing our conversation (aka using a protocol) about student data will help us focus on the learning targets and how the assessment actually provided evidence of mastery of the targeted standards.

Steps for Framing a Team Conversation

Within one week of giving a common assessment, set aside 30 minutes of your team’s common planning time (teachers will need to mark their class’s assessments before the team meeting). If you are a one-person team, then ask a critical friend, an administrator, or an instructional coach to join you for some analysis fun!

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I hope that my colleagues know that I am always eager to join a conversation about learning!

As a team, consider the following questions, from In Praise of American Educators, to determine the validity of the assessment, its alignment to the standards, and how the data will be used to improve results for all students. Your team may decide that other questions should be added to frame the conversation. Add those, too.

 

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The reproducible below is found in the book above.

 

Possible questions to consider, from DuFour’s book:

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Once the team feels that they have a better understanding of the students’ current learning of the targeted standards, then consider what these results mean to the next unit of study as well as how this unit will be revised for next year. Those reflective notes should be added to the unit documentation as well as the assessment. The ATLAS UbD template is a perfect spot to add strategies for differentiation and notes about the unit.

 

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This is our template for Stage 3 in ATLAS. Some teams also use Google Docs for Stage 3.

 

Finally, check out Solution Tree’s free resources for tools to help your team work collaboratively and with purpose, information about upcoming webinars, and a video library from the experts in learning.

Have a great week!

Ginny

Happy New School Year!

Students and teachers across the world are beginning a new year. How do I know? My Facebook feed is inundated with Back-to-School pics- and I love it! Here are a few from my feed over the years. Don’t tell my kids!

When our kids would tell us about their first few days of school, it was clear how the year was going to go. The teachers who spent time getting to know their students by building relationships and building routines were more likely to be the teachers that helped our kids feel cared for and feel confident.

It doesn’t need to take a lot of time to begin on the right foot. It can be as simple as standing at the classroom door, shaking each student’s hand, looking them in the eyes, making a quick introduction, and welcoming them to class. The old don’t-smile-until-Christmas advice has never been good for anyone.

Who are your students?

Over the first few weeks of school, the connection you make with students will impact the rest of the year. First impressions work both ways. Tell them about yourself as a student and a learner when you were their age. Better yet, show them a picture of YOU at their age. Here I am at different stages of awkwardness.

Let them know what your dreams were for your future. Where you thought you’d be. How you got where you are now.

Have a laugh, reminisce, then focus on them.

As much as it is a great ice-breaker for them to get to know each other, I recommend that you also get their info on paper (or digitally). Maybe through a discussion post or journal entry on your LMS, or a Google Form, or even a shared Google Doc. This may be the most important data you collect all year.

Focus your questions on these 3 topics (including a few examples):

Your students as people…

  • What is their background?
  • Where is home (especially important to those who are international)?
  • How would their family and friends describe them?
  • What do they need you to know about them?

Your students as learners…

  • What type of teacher do they respect?
  • How do they learn best?
  • How do they ask for help when they need it?

Your students as the future…

  • What are they passionate about?
  • What is happening now in their world that excites them?
  • What is happening now in their world that worries them?

Finally, let’s get back to you.

How are You Modeling Lifelong Learning?

As we get to know our students and they get to know us, we need to think about how we are modeling learning as learners ourselves. We need to build our own learning networks and share, with students, what we are learning as well as how we are using that learning. If we expect students to be learners, we must be learners.

Facebook and Twitter have made this easy. If you teach science and use the NGSS, then there’s a Facebook page for you. If you teach PE, then there are pages for you. If you use Seesaw, then there are pages for you. Honestly, if you teach it, someone is posting about it!

Here is a Google Site that I made last year with links to pages that are worth adding to your learning network. Leave me a comment if you have others that I should add.

My thoughts and energy are with you all this year. It’s going to be GREAT!

Teams with Poor Coaching Don’t Win the Big Game- in learning, every day is the Big Game

Some people work better on their own; I am not one of those people. I like being part of a team. I like everything that being on a team means… building a plan together, stretching together, practicing together, playing together, succeeding together, failing together, reflecting together, and improving together.

As a teacher, I was so blessed to work on some amazing teams of teachers and students. A few that come to mind are the grade 6 team at ACS Beirut (2001-2003)- we were energetic, passionate about learning, and made learning fun! The Dream Team of Seven Springs Middle School (2003-2005)- we took interdisciplinary learning to a whole new level, looping allowed us to really bond, and I worked with master teachers. DEMS (2007-2011)- I found my philosophical twin, and we team taught the heck out of grade 8- always keeping the students’ emotional well-being ahead of everything else!

Sometimes I was being mentored; other times I was the mentor. That’s what teams do- everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and everyone helps their team improve. No one is better than anyone else. PS- I am including students in my definition of team, so should you.

Being part of a team was what made teaching and learning so meaningful, but here I was, an administrator- with no team. I was lonely.

Then something happened… Something significant… Something that gave me goose bumps. I realized that being an administrator meant taking on the role as the coach of a team. A coach’s job is to inspire as a team, set goals as a team, learn as a team, communicate and model effectively as a team, play-succeed-fail as a team, reflect and improve as a team. Every team needs good coaching or the players are just playing for themselves.

This realization came last week during a professional development day. Grades K-5 team leaders assembled with their principal and me to develop division-wide Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions for the writing units of study. Here is how we worked as an effective (and totally awesome) team:

  • We built a plan together- What are the lifelong learning goals of writing?
  • We stretched our thinking together- What do we already know, and what do we need to know, about the significance of being lifelong writers?
  • We practiced and played together- What work have we done that is meaningful and should be honored?
  • We succeeded together- What are we doing well and is worth continuing?
  • We failed together- What should we stop doing, and why?
  • We reflected together- What did we used to think and what do we now know?
  • We improved together- When can we do this with other subjects? This was powerful!
K-5 Teamwork! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork- Succeeding Together! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork- Succeeding Together! Photo credit: Krista Roll

Think about the inspiring coaches and teammates that you’ve had over the years. If you don’t have that same inspiration and passion to win the Big Game, then make some changes. Your team, whether they are colleagues or students, need a quality coach. Don’t let them down!

Seriously… Kids Really are Counting On You! Inspire them and be a teacher worth remembering.

Imagine that you are a student. It is 6am, you’ve pressed snooze 3 times, and your first thought is of a specific teacher. How does that teacher make you feel?

  1. “I am so excited to go to school! My teacher is always happy to see us, and includes us in planning our units and projects. The time goes by so fast, because we are always moving around and doing interesting things that keep us on our toes and learning in new ways. I feel safe to make mistakes and don’t stress out when we have a test since the tests are fair and allow us to talk about what we learned.” – Sounds like a Master teacher!
  1. “I wonder what today will be like? Sometimes we learn really interesting things and have some fun; we even get to talk about our thoughts and ideas. Other times it seems that we’re all in trouble and don’t know why. Usually we can tell as soon as we walk in and look toward the teacher’s desk. Unfortunately, if it’s a bad day, we are stuck working out of the book and no one’s allowed to talk. It’s not fun to guess what kind of day it will be.” – Oh, boy, that sounds like a moody teacher.
  1. “Ugh, I don’t even want to go to school. All we do is the same thing every week. Read the pages, complete the worksheets, go over the homework, take the test, and repeat for 30 weeks. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get a project, but it’s the same project this class did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. This teacher must be as bored as their students. I guess I just have to survive the year.” – This is the meh teacher. Most of us have had at least one of these- every year of middle and high school. It’s not you, is it? 

Are you a master? Are you moody? Or, are you… (shoulder shrug goes here) Meh? Trust me, your students see you in one of those categories. Understandably, expecting a master teacher every day may seem unrealistic. We all have a few bad days, but if you are not inspired to be the kind of teacher who inspires kids to have a passion for learning, then please remind me why you are a teacher?

The best part is that you get a chance to be better, every single day! All it takes is an honest conversation with your students. What do they love about your class? What would they like to see changed? Why? How? Students expect feedback to make them better learners. Shouldn’t we expect feedback to make us better teachers?

Be brave, teachers! Kids are counting on us to inspire a passion for lifelong learning. Workbooks and textbooks don’t cover that. Be better than that. Don’t you want to be remembered as a great teacher?

A Shout Out to Teachers with Teacher Kids in their Class – I Feel Your Pain and Appreciate YOU

     It’s not easy, I know. My first year teaching, I had the daughter of my principal in my 8th grade English class. I think that is when I first broke out in hives. I knew that everything I said and did was being discussed at their dinner table each evening. It made me very conscientious about my lessons, my homework, my feedback, and my grading. I was a GREAT teacher that year.
     The next year, I did not have any children of colleagues- to be perfectly honest, my teaching practices were not nearly as polished or exciting as that first year. I relaxed, my teaching relaxed, I did not become better- I became lazier. I am so ashamed to admit this, but I am sure there are others like me out there. Right?
     Once I began teaching internationally, teachers’ kids were everywhere- in every class. I stepped up my game, but this time, for the RIGHT REASONS. I made sure that there was no room for error, no matter who was in my class. I worked really hard to build strong relationships with my students; I needed their trust, their respect, and their love – families were counting on me. Of course, I’m human, I had my fair share of struggles and “off” days- I learned and grew from them.
     In the back of my mind, I began considering these 3 questions:
If my child was in this class…
  • would they get it (purpose, instructions, feedback, assessments)?
  • would they feel liked, loved, challenged, and happy?
  • would they be getting the best effort from their teacher?
Teachers,
I am asking you to ask yourself these questions as often as possible,
if not every day of every year.

And to the teachers of my outspoken children- past, present, and future…
owl-chalkboard-thank-you
for putting up with us,
for putting up with them,
for giving your heart and soul to teaching and learning.

I would like to leave you with my favorite TED Talk from a truly inspiring teacher. Every day should be Teacher Appreciation Day 🙂

Stay Human, Teachers

As I was packing up and deciding what is worth saving or chucking, I came across some letters that were written to me by former students- 10 years ago. They reminded me of my favorite part of teaching- building relationships with kids. It was easy to teach curriculum when students felt loved, respected, and equal. They were as eager to be passionate about learning, because we were all in it together. We laughed together, cried together, and taught each other- I miss that.

As years have passed, and teachers rely more on technology to get information to students (Let’s face it, technology is pretty cool, and we want to use it!), I am afraid that the valuable relationship that is so necessary between students and teachers is deteriorating. We need to step back, teachers, and examine why and how technology should enhance our relationship with students, not separate us. Technology should be making us better, right?

Virtual classrooms can be amazing! Virtual classrooms can also be confusing, frustrating, and needless. These are the types of questions we must ask ourselves:
1. Is my virtual classroom simple and easy to navigate?
2. Is it aesthetically pleasing and friendly?
3. Is everything that students can see relevant to this unit or current learning?
4. When was the last time a colleague looked at YOUR virtual classroom and helped make suggestions to make it more student-friendly?

I am also concerned about other types of communication between teachers and students, and how technology can take away from our purpose of teaching and further separate us from our students. If students must rely on looking at virtual classrooms to know when assignments or projects are due, understand instructions and expectations, and figure out how they will be assessed- then what are we teaching? This is not the way to support and encourage independent learning. Teachers must guide students to be independent learners by…
– Creating a basic framework- objectives to be learned, purpose, timeline
– Getting student input- project design and process, checklists, rubrics
– Modeling expectations- throughout the process, in class, with your own work/writing
– Giving effective feedback- at each step, personalized, compliment + teaching point
– Opportunity for reflection- of purpose, of their own work (and team), of the process, of learning.

The relationship between teachers and students is so important, and we need to figure out how to keep that personalized relationship while using technology to enhance our classroom. Kids want to be loved, respected, and equal. Let’s not forget that at the end of the day, it’s about them. Not what we’ve taught them, but who they are, who they become. What will the letters from students say about you as a teacher?