Going beyond “We should do something about that…”

I overheard a conversation last week in a coffee shop in which someone was claiming that she is “so over TED Talks.” My gut reaction was to intrude and educate her. TED Talks expose us to new and exciting and ideas, I would tell her, and can really inspire us to change the world. Before I could get up, she cut me off at the pass by leading with a nearly identical statement about TED Talks’ power. “BUT,” she quickly added, “anymore it feels like a smart and inspiring person with a cool story to share and not much else. It’s like a motivational poster hanging on the wall except it lasts 10 minutes instead of one sentence.”

All of a sudden, I was the one being educated. She really got me thinking.

Anyone reading this probably represents (at least) one of the 5 million views of Derek Sivers’ How to start a movement talk. You know the one I’m talking about: Crazy Dancing Guy on a grassy hill at a concert who, thanks to his first followers, grows his dance party from one person to hundreds of people in under 3 minutes. It’s a great talk. If there’s such a thing as an archetypical TED Talk, this is it.

And that, I think, is exactly the point my eavesdropping ears were hearing. The whole talk could have just been a picture with the caption, “Without motivated followers, a bold leader is nothing more than one lone nut.”

Compare this to a recent Elon Musk keynote in which he begins:

“What I’m going to talk about tonight is a fundamental transformation of how the world works.”

He goes on to talk about batteries and how he plans for them to eliminate the need for power plants that burn fossil fuels. It is decidedly unsexy. It’s unfit for even a motivational poster. And yet, the talk is captivating. Musk grabs our imagination, defines a huge problem and offers concrete takeaways about how we might overcome.

This was still on my mind when I read Terry Freedman’s great post, 7 Questions To Ask About Big Name Speakers At Education Technology Conferences. Like most of us, Freedman is a fan of speakers who reallydeliver and shares 7 questions we can ask that function as a sort of rubric to measure whether the headliner will hit us with sexy buzz and little substance or actually leave us with something meaningful. The point shared is that the author will get more out of attending a session by a local teacher sharing her actual work and strategies with students than from a keynote with a well-known speaker who offers little beyond inspirational hype.

Conference speakers of all stripes, not just education conferences, would do themselves and their audiences a service to read Freedman’s post and reflect on it. They need to challenge themselves to be better. It’s not enough to identify a problem nor is it sufficient to proclaim that we should do something about it. If a problem is worth discussing on a big stage, it should inherently be worth addressing.

Speakers who stop at a call to action are more of a footnote than a keynote. The challenge is to move beyond that and issue a claim to action that shares how they are changing the world. Speakers who can convince us that they are the real Crazy Dancing Guy will inspire us with their plans and truly start a movement.

5 Things We Need To Quit Pretending

I was inspired to write this after reading Rachel Murat’s challenge of the same name. My initial inclination was “No.” I stick to positivity and optimism and it’s too tempting to delve into the negative with this theme. I avoid topics like this like I avoided looking in the mirror when I had a black eye.

After some thought, it hit me: Rachel’s whole point is that just because we don’t look at it doesn’t mean the black eye isn’t there. When we will ourselves to ignore our blemishes, our pretending hinders our growth and that is not what’s best for kids. It is in this spirit that I offer my list of 5 Things We need to Quit Pretending.

  1. We need to quit pretending that we don’t know how to say, “I don’t know.” None of us has all of the answers. And that is OK. The danger is when we don’t feel comfortable or safe admitting it. We do a disservice to students when we pretend we know things that we don’t. We are experiencing the most exciting moment to be in education and a reality of this is that when something is new, there will be an void of expertise. We fill this void with humility and a willingness to ask questions.
  2. We need to quit pretending that our thumbs don’t point. Using our index fingers to signal the faults in the people and systems around us is easy. The tough part is using our thumbs to point back at ourselves. Put another way: we need to quit pretending we live in houses with only windows and start to use the mirrors to reflect on our own roles and responsibilities.
  3. We need to quit pretending that “old school” teachers are “wrong school” teachers. An example of this: I’ve been seeing a lot of tweets and blog posts that call out our colleagues who are not active in the “Connected Educators” movement. This is unfair and divisive. Just as our instruction should not be one-size-fits-all, our approach to professional development ought to be a tent large enough to fit the varied attractions that meet the needs of ALL teachers. We are in this for students and we don’t help the cause when we drive wedges between educators.
  4. We need to quit pretending that there’s enough time in the day. The most valuable resource a teacher has is time and you’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher who’s not already in the red and running a time deficit. Any new ask of teachers is an add to their already overflowing plates and failures to acknowledge and consider this problem are unjust and inexcusable. Educators are dedicated and resourceful but they (probably) aren’t wizards who can wave a wand and make new time where there was none. Providing adequate time must be part of change management.
  5. We need to quit pretending we know the words to the verses. There are a lot of folks in Education and Ed Reform who have gotten good at singing along with the chorus. It’s catchy. It rhymes. It sounds good. And, it’s only surface level. The real meat and potatoes are in the verses where we go beyond the buzz words and establish the true meaning of our work. It is fine to sing along with chorus but if you cannot or will not join in with the verses, then you are just a backup singer and need to own it.

Building Up to a Finale

Teaching is a challenging business and as we approach the end of the school year, it is an amazing feeling to finally see the finish line in sight. “We’ve made it!” we’ll excitedly tell ourselves and each other. And we’re right. The year has probably been more of an obstacle course + marathon combination than a sprint. We have triumphed. We have perservered. We have overcome. Let’s celebrate!

There is however, an important BUT we must insert here if we’re being diligent: We are close to the end and we will have done all of these things but not until the school year has actually ended!
As we near the end of the 2014–15 school year, we can choose to either count down to the end or build up to a finale. Based on the number of favorites and retweets my message around this has received, it’s clear there are a lot of educators who value the latter option and it is for you that I offer 3 suggestions to help you get there.

1. Consider your legacy

I only have one memory of one of my high school teachers. I don’t recall anything we did or learned in his class. I don’t even remember if I liked the class. The only thing I remember is that he had a calendar on his bulletin board. Inside each box on the calendar, he had written in how many days were left in the year and at the end of each day he would put a big red ‘X’ through that date’s box. This teacher literally counted down to the end of the year. Each day with his students was one of about 180 items in a check list he needed to get through in order to get back to vacation.

My guess is that this teacher knew his content area, was passionate about kids and chose his career because he wanted to make a difference in the world. But with at least one of his students (me), this is not how he was remembered. His legacy is that he was counting down, not building up, and that legacy is a lasting one. When I entered the profession, one of the first goals I set for myself was to never share his fate. I wanted to be remembered for the teaching and learning that I inspired.

There are many factors that go into how and why we remember some things and not others. To this end, not all of your students will remember you and your class. For those who will, how you finish the year might not even be a contributing factor in forming their memories. But you can still take agency in trying. A few ideas:

Seek a way to make the final project a lasting artifact. I still have a story book I made (using Hypercard!) in middle school Spanish class. My Civics teacher had us write a U.S. Senator to advocate on an issue we cared about and somewhere in my parent’s basement is a memory box housing the signed (form) letter I received in response. Buried deep at the end of the Internet is the “About Me” web site I made in my college Computer Science class. These were great legacy assignments!
Ask students to consider how they might use learning from your class next year, in three years, and in ten and thirty years from now. Today, I would struggle to successfully solve a proof for Geometry class (the thought is making fingers shake and my palms sweat!) but the pragmatic thinking and problem solving skills are part of my daily life 20+ years later. That response I received from a U.S. Senator taught me about civic engagement and as a result my elected officials hear from (and sometimes see) me multiple times a year.
Start a conversation between students’ current and future selves. Sixteen years after graduating high school, a letter in familiar handwriting found its way to my current address. After reading the first sentence, I was transported back to my Senior English class and could picture the teacher’s crowded desk, the partitioned walls of the room and my precise seat in a row where I had written that letter. I remembered how rowdy my classmates and I were, how anxious we felt to graduate and get out of there and how dismissive we were of her insistence, “Take this seriously! You’ll be grateful for this letter one day if you are!” She was right and that is her legacy.
2. Be reflective in a meaningful way
Great educators constantly seek to improve. One powerful way to go about it is to ask our students for feedback. Surveys are popular but there are other tools as well. After reading this post — that describes surveys as a “the most dangerous research tool” — I asked around and learned about a different protocol that I have found to be effective and insightful:

Give each student a blank sheet of paper. Post this instruction: “Draw a picture that represents your ideal experience in [this] class.” Give them 3 minutes.
Put students in pairs and have Student A describe their picture to Student B for 90 seconds. Student B is to silently take notes as bullet points. Stress that Student B should not talk; sit and stare when Student A runs out of things to say. She will probably get uncomfortable and fill the silence with more details.
Give Student B one minute to read her bullet points back to Student A. Provide the suggested prompt, “I hear you saying that ____ is important and meaningful to you.” Student A should clarify any misunderstandings.
Have the two students switch roles and repeat the previous two steps.
In their pairs, have students go through the bullet points of what was important and meaningful to them and place a check mark next to those bullets for which their needs were met and stars next to those they needed more of.
Have each pair share a couple of their points with the whole class and collect their sheets and drawings at the end. Pay attention to the check marks so you know where you are doing well and are intentional about continuing those practices next year. Reflect on the stars and use them to make goals for improving in the future.
3. Remember the relationships
If you only build up to one thing for your end of the year finale, make it your relationships with students. Greet students at the door with a smile and handshake before class. Ask how they are doing. Ask about their families and their summer plans and whether they are planning to visit any colleges. Give them your business card and write your email on the board. Let them know that they can always contact you (and that you hope they will!). Encourage them to come back and visit you because you want to know about their futures.

Most importantly, tell students that you care.

How do you plan to *Build Up* to a finale this year? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Student-led Final Review

This post originally appeared on TeachPaperless blog 3 years ago. While some of the tools are now antiquated, I hope the ideas can help educators seeking to add creative, innovation, engagement and meaning to the final review process.

Others on this blog have been writing about student-produced/student-driven final exams. I’d like to add to the conversation the student-produced final review. This is the third semester that I have foregone handing out a big semester review before the final and instead left it up to my students to guide the review and I have not been disappointed. Just as there are a wide range of abilities in my classes, students produce an array of activities that go far beyond what I would have created, especially on the high and low ends of ability/readiness. I would be lying if I claimed that 100% of students subsequently took advantage of class review time to diligently study and prepare for the final exam but the vast majority do and, from my viewpoint, appear much more engaged in the whole process. I think that the student ownership creates buy-in and interest in what we are doing.

Note that while this is for high school Spanish students, most of the tools and resources here can be adapted to meet the needs of other subjects. This year, the most popular and beneficial study guides came in the form of the dice maker, fakeconvos.com, awards shows and Quizlet. Below is an abbreviated version of how I introduce this to classes (I post it to them on Edmodo — along with the *content* they can expect to see on the final exam — and those who create digital reviews share them with classmates on the group page):

One of the ways that you can demonstrate your own understanding of learning is to be able to show it or teach it to another student. To that end, you will help others study for the final exam (and they will help you) by creating a review activity or game. We will dedicate block day and Friday to preparing for the final exam by using YOUR review activities.

You must be able to explain the game to your peers. If you are unsure about your idea, run it by me before your create it. You may do more than one activity. If you have a bigger project to attempt, I am open to allowing you to work in pairs but clear it with me first. Same goes for any doubts you have…if you have questions, ask!

Some ideas:
1. Write stories that classmates can read. By reading them, they are studying and preparing for the test.

2. Record a listening practice. You can record a reading of one of our stories from class (They will be in your edmodo library) and have questions that classmates answer to demonstrate their listening comprehension.

3. Adjust one of these games to meet your needs:

4. This site is a gold mine of activities you can use: awards certificate maker to do your own awards show for classmates, dice games, board game generator to invent your own board game, crossword puzzles and more. A lot of you used this one last semester:

5. Create a story (usng target vocab!) in the form of a fake Facebook conversation:

6. Here’s another site with great resources, including a Jeopardy game maker:

7. Make your own online review game!

8. Make your own poster series (Hola meme addicts!). This site has some good resources:

9. Create a stack of digital flash cards. There are a ton of resources out there. Here’s one:

10. This is a step up from a dice game: Sentence Generator

This is but a partial list of what resources are out there. What would you add to the list? Have you had success (or struggle) with tasking students to take ownership of their own final review? Let us know how are hacking (or would hack!) the final review process in the comments!