Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Olympic Opportunity

We are just 8 days away from the Winter Olympics. How exciting. Human beings at the top of their game testing themselves against one another in a spirit of friendly competition. I have always enjoyed both summer and winter Olympics. Not just because I love sports, but because I love drama. One hundredth of a second can mean the difference between medaling or not. Teenagers competing for the first time; veterans possibly for the last. Stunning. Sometimes scandalous. It's all there.

Which is why it is perfect learning material for your classroom in February. Need numbers to crunch? There will be plenty: From averaging skating scores to calculating the engineering in the bobsled run or the trajectory of a ski jump. Need stuff to read? Besides the blogs and the newspaper columns and magazine articles, there are dozens of biographies and human interest stories surrounding these Olympians and those of the past. Social Studies? We have been reading about the political situation in Russia daily and are hoping for a safe winter games, but what is going on that there is this level of concern? How do different countries choose and prepare their athletes? How do all these countries come together peacefully? What happened when Nazi Germany was host? Which Olympics has the United States boycotted and why? And science?! Do you want physics? Biology? Chemistry? It's all there.

One of the complaints we hear from students all the time is that they see no connection between school and their everyday lives. Given the fact that at least watching the Olympics will be part of most students' everyday lives in the next couple of weeks, teachers have a rare opportunity for material that is both inspiring and engaging. When a student has to investigate the variations in a figure skater's heart rate during competition, comment on a blog in French written by a French Canadian athlete, calculate the best angle for a speed skater to enter a turn, or read and report on the politics surrounding the Jamaican luge! It's all there.

I challenge you to spend the next week designing at least one lesson that connects what your students have to learn because it is based on some mandated rubric or pacing guide and the winter games. Post your ideas in the comments below, on QISA's Facebook page, or tweet it to @qisatweets and we will award gold, silver, and bronze medals for the best ideas. It will all be here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shark Zone

A friend of mine has a son in 6th grade. Let's call him Jacques. Bright. Curious. Cautious, but not risk averse. A bit shy, but not withdrawn. The type of middle schooler who takes awhile to warm up to people, but once he does will engage in great conversation.

Recently Jacques was given an independent research project. Something with sharks. In his wheelhouse. His research was thorough and excellent. He actually read books, not just wikipedia! My friend said he went at the project with enthusiasm as well as intellectual wonder. So far so good. No sweat.

Part of the assessment was a formal presentation to his classmates and teachers. Jacques had to dress up. Create a powerpoint. It was video-taped. Not as easy as actually doing the research and writing a report, but doable even for someone a little on the shy side. The internal resources were available, they just had to be mustered. A little perspiration can be good for kids.

But another part of the assessment was a presentation in front of parents. Note, this was not "extra credit." There was no choice or flexibility. This was part of the rubric the teacher had created that would be included in the final grade for the project. A presentation in front of mostly strangers. Nice strangers, no doubt, but people Jacques didn't know. He sweated this big time.

Not every challenge is appropriate for every student. The effective stretching of our students depends upon knowing them well enough to begin from where they are and tug at them with expectations just enough out of reach that they grow. Students--like all of us--have a Comfort Zone, a Challenge Zone, and a Panic Zone. Part of teaching is making sure students do not work only in their Comfort Zone, absolutely. We hear a lot these days about the importance of "grit" in education. I am all for it. But learning cannot take place in the Panic Zone.

In the comfort of the research, Jacques learned about sharks. In the challenge of the classroom presentation, Jacques learned an even more important lesson about himself. In the panic of the seemingly shark-infested parent presentation, through which he fumbled and stumbled and nearly shut down, Jacques learned nothing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Don't Turn Your Back

One of my favorite things about visiting our schools in the South is how polite the students are.  Today, during our focus groups in South Carolina, the middle school boys I talked with peppered their responses with "Yes, sir"s and "No, sir"s. They shook my hand on the way in and the way out. They looked me in the eye when they answered. They interrupted each other in the excitement to give answers, but never interrupted me, and always stopped talking over each other when I asked them to.

One of the questions I asked about was respect for teachers.  In this particular school, the total in agreement for "Teachers respect students" on their My Voice survey was 43%.  Interestingly, on the My Voice staff survey, the total in agreement for "Students respect me" was 84%.  This gap in perception is actually not atypical.  Teachers perceive more respect from students than students say actually exists.

When I asked the students what respectful behavior towards a teacher looked like, they described the same overt behaviors I experienced:  Being polite, following teacher instructions, not disrupting the class.  When I asked what disrespectful behavior toward a teacher looked like, they described why there is a gap in perception on this issue: Making faces after a teacher leaves, eye rolls when they turn their back, cussing at a teacher under your breath so students can hear but not the teacher. Respect is what happens to a teacher's face, disrespect is what happens behind her back.

I guess that is not so surprising. Besides never turning our back on students, what is to be done? Modeling is a start. Stephen Covey writes about the importance of "Loyalty to those who are not present." How are teachers with that? Another solution is to build relationships with students.  Students are not disrespectful to teachers they believe respect and care about them.  In fact, they report getting on other students who are disrespectful to such teachers.

When students become your allies in correcting unwanted behaviors it no longer matters if your back is turned.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


In the clip below from a 1936 Little Rascals episode, we find Our Gang at recess...

Notice anything familiar? Besides Porky, Spanky, Alfalfa, and Buckwheat, I mean. In 1936 in order to get students to move from one part of the school day to another, a bell rang. To send them to lunch, to get them to move from math to reading, to call them back from recess. Ring-a-ling-a-ling. Early on it was a hand held bell like the one Buckwheat rings. Later they became automated.

Most of the schools I go into still ring a bell. Sometimes it's a buzzer, or a chime, or a soft beep, but the principle is the same. Time to move.

A high school in Montana was having problems with students coming late--late to school, late to their next class, late getting back from lunch. They gathered their student Aspirations Team and asked them what they thought should be done. "Stop ringing the bells," the students said. This was counter-intuitive for the adults. As adults, our solutions would be to ring the bell louder or longer, to put teachers in the hallways to hustle students along, to have some kind of zero-tolerance threshold at the threshold: If you are not through the door frame when the second bell stops ringing you are late! The students said: Stop ringing the bells.

The school tried it for one month to see what would happen. Not ringing the bells virtually eradicated the lateness problem. In fact, most students at that school now arrive early to class, chat with friends or the teacher, get organized, or read a book waiting for class to begin. Every one gets where they are going when they need to get there. Among the few tardies that remain, most are for legitimate reasons.

Why did this work? Because it shifted responsibility for when to get where from an outmoded system to the students and the students rose to the expectation that they should be on time, instead of finding ways to game the outmoded system.

Why is the system outmoded? In 1936 when Spanky and his friends were in school, in 1976 when me and my friends were in school, and even in 1996 when my daughters and their friends were in school, time in a building as sprawling as a school (or a factory or prison...ehem) was not synchronized. The clock in one room had one time, the clock in another another. Some were fast. Some were slow. Some didn't run at all.

Look at the clock on your computer right now. Whatever time it says is exactly that same time for everyone reading this blog right now. Take out your cell phone, what time does it have? Ask someone next to you what time it is on his or her cell phone. I shared this story in a room with 200 people in it and asked them to raise their hands if their mobile device had the same time I called out from mine. They all raised their hands. Mobile devices make time completely synchronized. Not ringing the bells worked because every student in that school had a cell phone or was with someone who did and was willing to be responsible for being on time.

Why are we still ringing the bells?

By the way, what other ideas to students have for solving problems in schools whose roots lie in outdated systems?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Aspirations Dysmorphia

The other day a teacher used an interesting analogy for students who are in the category we refer to as Imagination in our Aspirations Profile. He said they are like someone with a body dysmorphic disorder. He went on to explain how people with this condition look in the mirror and see something that's not really there. They may see themselves as overweight when really they are very thin. They project what they see in their imagination onto to what they see in the mirror, and the result is a kind of disconnect from reality.

Many male students tell us that they want to be professional athletes. Most of those, NFL or NBA. As a sports fan myself, I can see the attraction. What boy doesn't imagine himself catching a pass from Tom Brady or out rebounding LeBron James? The excitement, the fans, the salaries! The reality is that a very small percentage of students who play high school sports wind up in the professional ranks. It's .08% for football and .02% for basketball. The best bet is baseball at .5%.

This brings up an ongoing discussion we have whenever we discuss Aspirations that are, shall we say, lofty. On the one hand we want students to dream big, to feel like "the sky is the limit," and to believe they can become whoever they want to become. On the other hand, we have a responsibility as teachers, guides, and coaches to point out reality and the steps necessary to attain such a goal. Doing the latter without bursting the former is a tricky business.

I am a big fan of connecting as many assignments to a student's dream as possible - biography reports of those who have done well in a particular field, using numbers and statistics from a field of interest in math, social studies assignments related to the field. There is good evidence that such connections make learning more engaging for students. Perhaps another benefit will be a better grounding in reality, discovered by the students themselves. Such grounding might lead them to the actual "doing" that is necessary to make a run at their lofty dreams - or to adjust these dreams to be more in-line with what they are prepared to do to achieve them.