Cramming in Last Minute Caring

studying hard

By Dean+Barb

We have about a month of school left. I am worn out from a long and stressful year. The weather is getting warmer and sunny (rare during Michigan winters). Kids are getting more restless and active. Everyone knows that we are pretty much down to the end and the pressure is on to make sure that we “cover all of the content” required by the syllabus, district, or curriculum office. Every Friday I am exhausted and ready for the weekend.

I too am feeling the pressure of the end of the year, but in a different way. I feel like I am still learning to know my students and I only have limited time to engage them on a deep level. The seniors (which I no longer teach) are thinking about grad parties and college choices. This is my last month of having my students in class daily and getting to know their hopes and dreams. I have limited time to hear their jokes, listen to stories about their plays, music performances, and games. Time is slipping away from me being there to hear about students’ struggles with family issues, friendship problems, or personal dilemmas.

I think about the students that I don’t know as well as I would like to because they are quiet or closed off. I think about the girl who has a hard shell around her keeping out anyone from seeing her deep pain. I think about the boy who thinks that no one really understands what his home life is like. So many students with so many dreams, yet also so much personal pain and struggles.

I want to finish the year strong. To me that means lots of listening, caring,  and connecting. To me that means pushing my students to love themselves and each other.  Our last project focuses on poverty through the lens of the Great Depression. I want my students to care about the less fortunate and be empathetic.

I will end the year by concentrating on connecting with students personally.

I will end the year by speaking encouraging words daily.

I will end the year by challenging students to consider the less fortunate.

I am tired. I am ready for a break, but my students still need my best.

I will end the year with love. I will show students how to love each other. I will leave my students with a message of hope and love for all.

We are going to cram in as much caring this month as we can…

Student Voice and Choice

I had the opportunity to record a short Google Hangout with other National Faculty members from Buck Institute for Education on the Gold Standard for “Student Voice and Choice.”

John Larmer wrote a nice post summarizing it here.

Check out the entire GHO below:

Going Public: The Power of Local, Community Partners in PBL

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Ever have a project that students don’t get very excited about? Chances are that it was lacking a quality audience and purpose.

Deciding on the right public product that is authentic to students can be one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of designing a gold standard project-based learning (PBL) project. Sometimes teachers try to force a project on a set of standards in an artificial way. A way to avoid this is to start with an excellent, local partner.

How We “Went Public”

In our community, Grand Rapids, a couple of local citizens started an organization called Grand Rapids Whitewater, dedicated to removing dams from the Grand River in order to restore the original rapids for economic and ecological reasons. They raised money and political capital until it became obvious that their dream was going to become a reality. My colleagues and I immediately recognized that this was going to be the biggest change to our city in decades. We had to get our students involved!

Finish reading my guest post at Getting Smart blog or on the blog where it was originally published.


Peer Teaching

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In my math class I feel I did a good job teaching some student the content, but many students in class learned more from each other than from me.

Many students do not learn math well from large group instruction of examples on the board. They thrive with individual attention. But I can not sit down individually with 25 students for an extended amount of time. This was frustrating for students and myself.

The solution came as I encouraged students to work on practice problems together. From this collaboration, stronger students started helping ones who struggled and needed more attention. I could do large group examples and my strongest students would “get it.” They would then work in groups and help others. This gave the “teaching” students confidence and the “learning” students the attention that they needed. I saw a dramatic increase in the quality of work on assessments.

The other “technique” that I use in math class is that whenever I give practice problems I also give students the answer key. The reason that I do this is so that students can check their own work. By having the answers students will not do a whole bunch of problems wrong and learn bad habits. If students get a problem incorrect they can “reverse engineer” how to do the problem correctly from the answer. This can lead to deep understandings. Students can’t cheat by copying the answers from a friend because they all have the answers and I don’t grade the practice problems. The motivation to do the problems comes from a clear understanding that the problems represent the coming assessment.

I then can work the room and help the students who self assess that they don’t know what they are doing. Students either gain confidence as they check their work and see correct answers or get immediate feedback that they are incorrect and can ask for help from their classmates or me.

Sometimes the students need less of listening to us and more of working together to solve problems on their own. We need to step in and coach as necessary, but also encourage students to develop their own number sense and be able to solve problems themselves.

Wait Time Done Right


I was part of a PD on asking deeper questioning this week. They did a great job modeling what they were teaching us. They would introduce a concept and have us practice with a “neighbor” or would ask a question and have us discuss at our tables. They kept these activities short, only giving us a minute or two to discuss which kept us on task and did not give time for side conversations.

This was not a new process to me, but they did one extra step that I think was significant. While we were talking they went around to different groups and asked someone to share out their thinking in the large group conversation that followed. So after these small conversations when we discussed as a whole group the leaders did not have to ask who wants to share because these people were already chosen.

I had never thought of wait time like this before. To me, when I think of wait time I usually think of pausing and not calling on the first student who raises their hand, but letting other students have a chance to process first.

Their process, in my opinion, is a much better way to do wait time. Students have a warning that they will be sharing, but have time to mentally prepare what they will say and get feedback from their group. This is an opportunity for shy students to think through things and yet are given a voice without being put on the spot.

Wait time doesn’t have to mean a student thinking silently. Wait time also means the opportunity to discuss your thoughts with a partner before taking the risk of sharing with the whole group.

What techniques do you use to give your students wait time?

Civil Rights Tour of Grand Rapids

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Last spring my students did a project studying local Civil Rights history and comparing it to the more “famous” national Civil Rights Movement. They made podcasts telling the local stories and then we put it into a tour.

Check out the blogpost that Experience GR wrote about the project…

Why “off task” is OK

By McQuinn

By McQuinn

My friend Russ tweeted this quote (questioning it):

“Every spare moment in our classrooms should be packed full of engaging, learning opportunities.” from The Edvocate.

I replied that I’m ok with students being off task sometimes. You see no one is always “on.” We all get distracted sometimes and we also need brain breaks. This may not have been the point of the post, but I often hear people talk about students like they need to make sure that they are working hard on what they are “supposed to be doing” every second of the day.

I think that there are a couple of dangers with this attitude. For one the teacher can become a taskmaster that is always policing the room. The teacher then is seen as an adversary by students, rather than someone to learn with. I think this kind of teacher rarely reflects on the types of activities in their class and whether boredom is the cause of the off task behavior.

Secondly we miss the opportunities to teach students self management. Rather than worrying about whether students are on task we should focus on teaching students to set deadlines and meet them in regards to their projects and work. Successful students already do this and are viewed as “good” students by many. I wonder how many of our “struggling” students are really just students lacking organizational and time management skills?

In the past I have not done enough to seek out the reasons why students are not meeting deadlines. This year I will conference more with students who fall behind and facilitate a conversation to help them figure out how to keep up in class. I will support them in organizational skills as needed.

Finally, sometimes it is ok to just have fun in class for no specific reason. As Dean Shareski always says we need more joy in schools. Sometimes that does not look like a learning experience, and that is ok. Humor, joy, and relationships are the building blocks of trust that will allow deeper learning later. Humans were not designed to always be working. We need to remember our students’ humanity.

If we really want to close the achievement gap



What drives me crazy about conversations about the achievement gap between minorities and whites is that we don’t talk about the causes. Before we get to solutions we should look to why the achievement gap exists. The thing is, that conversation is uncomfortable. I see three main historical reasons that are intertwined racism, poverty, and segregation.

Everyone knows that during the Jim Crow era, blacks were forced into separate schools that were inferior in every way to white schools: resources, buildings, money, teacher training, etc. Segregated schools were definitely not equal and put blacks at huge disadvantages. Segregated schools contributed to huge income gaps (along with institutional racism such as redlined housing and unfair hiring practices). So today we have a legacy where many blacks live in poverty and still attend defacto segregated schools in urban areas due to white flight to either the suburbs or private schools.

So how should we proceed based on these historical causes of the achievement gap? Well there actually is evidence (and here) of some successful ideas to close the achievement gap through integrating schools by busing minority students to white suburb schools or other ways of desegregation. Unfortunately there is about ZERO support for this type of program. Why? Partly because of the costs of the busing, but mostly the vocal complaints of white parents who don’t like it.

Researchers know that integration leads to all kinds of positive effects for blacks and also does not “harm” white achievement (I would add that it would have many benefits for white students being more understanding and empathetic of blacks).

The other thing that we could do as a society is address the wealth gap and actually do something to help people make a living wage and get out of poverty as we know that socio-economic status is the most important factor in measuring student achievement. Of course, blacks are disproportionately poor due to the same historical factors of segregation and discrimination.

Why don’t we address integration of schools and poverty? Well for one they would require the government to actually do something and many whites would oppose these actions with thinly veiled racism. These problems are outside of the control of local school districts and would require state or federal involvement.

If we really want to leave No Child Left Behind, we could start by fixing the causes of the achievement gap instead of blaming urban schools, teachers, students, and their parents. Instead we punish failing schools and closing them we could integrate schools and address the problem of poverty.

Pitch Perfect


I had the privilege of joining Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship and attending their convening last week. I wasn’t 100% sure what I was getting into, but I really enjoyed the two days. As it turns out the purpose of this organization is to support teacher leaders and to amplify their voices. Pretty cool! The best part was meeting and connecting with other leaders from across the state of Michigan.

My favorite part of the convening was a session on creating pitches to use when talking to state legislators. Creating a short, powerful pitch is not something that they teach you in pre-service education or anywhere in education that I have seen. I loved the emphasis on stories that connect people to your message. I struggled a bit with the initial hook part, but after seeing an example from Melody Arabo it quickly came to me. We practiced our pitches taking them from two minutes down to fifteen seconds.

As I reflect on the importance of a good pitch, I see it as a vital skill that teachers should use all of the time. We should be “pitching” the new projects to students with great entry events tied to a story. We should use pitches to parents to help them understand how our classes are different from the school they went to and why. Having a pitch to share a new idea with colleagues, administrators, and school boards could be very effective to gain consensus. We should be able to pitch our class projects to local business and community partners to motivate their involvement and support.

Sometimes educators feel they need to be humble and servant like and pitching feels dirty to them. The truth is that teachers need to stand up and speak out for what is best in the classroom and for their kids. Pitching shouldn’t be about promoting yourself but about promoting your students’ work and about the best kind of schools that we can create. When considered in that light, one can be humble and pitch important ideas at the same time. I would go for far as to say that we have an obligation to start pitching positive stories about education to change the negative stereotypes in this country.

Break Protocols with a Purpose!

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Teachers love to establish protocols at the beginning of the year and in general it is a good practice. We need structure in schools but I feel like there is often an overemphasis on rules that is based on administrators trying to control teachers or teachers trying to control students (same exact phenomenon really).

I have spoken out against standardization and structure at times, but it has a time and place. For example when I drive my car I am very happy that we have rules about driving: which side of the road, how to signal and make turns, and slow drivers in the left lane!!!!! Without these protocols I would probably be dead. Protocols around safety make sense and are imperative. In the classroom we need protocols to establish safety for our students and this is especially important for their emotional safety.

The counter example is a chef. There are protocols for proper cooking techniques. There is a science to how to prepare food properly so that it is safe and delicious. My wife and I often watch Chopped. The format of the show is that it is a competition where contestants are given 4-5 mystery ingredients that they need to turn into appetizers, main courses, and desserts. The chefs on the show never make the same dishes because cooking is also an art. If they do the science wrong, then the dish can be a disaster. But if they do the science right, but don’t personalize it into a unique dish then the food can be bland and boring.

Teaching is like being a chef. It is an art and a science. There is a science and a structure behind good teaching (PBL is my favorite structure :). I do not believe that teachers should just show up and “wing it” everyday. On the other hand, if we truly believe in student voice and choice then we need to have some flexibility in our classrooms. Protocols and rules need to be able to change and adapt to the students’ needs in our rooms. If you haven’t started school yet, then you have no relationships to build protocols on. Too much structure and protocols can stifle creativity and learning.

I love comparing the African proverb with the Picasso quote at the top. Breaking protocols for no purpose makes no sense. But when you really understand what you are trying to accomplish then you will start to recognize when protocols are getting in the way. My thermometer is to ask myself if the protocol limits student learning through voice and choice. If yes, then I need to consider other ways to structure learning.

Final thought: build protocols with your staff or students. Don’t force structure on them!