Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Student Reflection - Why and How Should We Plan For It?

I'm guilty. I wasn't the best at giving my students time to reflect as part of the learning cycle. If there was time at the end of the lesson, the unit, the week, the quarter, semester, or school year, then I would ask my students to reflect in order to process what they had learned, how they learned it, and how they might apply what they’ve learned to future endeavors.

However, the more we educators (myself included) understand about how our students' brains work and how learners process new concepts and skills, the more we understand the need for reflection to be part of the learning cycle. It's a piece that is not negotiable. It is so valuable because it is what holds the new knowledge together.

As a result, the new knowledge is easier to retrieve and provides additional connection points for future practice opportunities and learning experiences to attach themselves to.

And just like we educators take advantage of reflection as part of our professional practice to structure our instructional sequences, students also use their reflections as a guide as they set additional learning goals.

To be clear, reflection is different than checking for comprehension. Checking for comprehension requires that the learner demonstrate skill proficiency. Reflection, on the other hand, is a much deeper cognitive process because it requires the learner to make judgments about the learning process itself.

So how do you go about setting a supportive environment and provide activities for reflective thinking? The University of Hawaii has some good suggestions:
  • Provide an emotionally supportive environment that allows for students to be vulnerable, if necessary, as they evaluate their learning.
  • Provide sufficient time for students to reflect.
  • Reflection prompts are authentic
  • The prompts encourage consideration for what was known prior to lesson, what was learned, and what has yet to be learned.
  • The reflection prompts promote assessment of the learning experiences themselves
  • The reflection process includes opportunities for social interaction among learners to gain additional perspectives.

How often should reflection take place? As Larissa Pahomov, author of Authentic Learning in the Digital Age, states, that if reflection is going to benefit student learning, the ideas need to be documented in some fashion and then referenced at the starting point of the next learning point. When considering where reflections fit in on the learning cycle, the ideas should be recorded at the end and referred back to at the beginning of the next cycle. Learning begins and ends with reflection.

And if we as educators want to maximize the potential of reflecting on learning, we will provide opportunity and space for the learners in our classrooms to share their thinking. Educational leader, George Couros, will often ask participants in his sessions to record their thinking in a video and share it out via Twitter. Why? He states that among several reasons, it continues the conversation beyond the time and space that learners are in a physical arena together.

Whether or not we utilize Twitter in our learning spaces (which is a topic I’d love to discuss further with you, if you’re not already doing so) or simply have students do a think-pair-share at the end of the class period, we need to provide the opportunity to build understanding through sharing ideas. If our mindset is that learning is solely an independent practice, then our mindset is outdated. Yes, there is a time and place for students to practice and provide evidence of proficiency in a skill, but if they never or rarely share their thinking with others, we are literally depriving them of a necessary component of the learning cycle.

Based on my own practice, not many of our students are adept at being reflective, they need scaffolds in order to produce reflections that help them make connections and solidify learning. The following four questions, when used in concert, tend to help the ideas in our students’ minds be transcribed into a journal (paper or digital), written or audio/video recordings.

  1. What did you learn?
  2. How did you learn it? What activities helped you to learn?
  3. How does what you learned connect with what you already knew?
  4. What questions or comments do you still have?
Providing students with sufficient time for reflection, including sharing their reflections and referring back to them periodically, will no doubt take a bit of time and planning on our part. However, we are no longer the sage on the stage, rather we are facilitators of learning and as such, we will enrich the learning experience with periods of reflection.

Offering my BEST to you!

What reflective strategies do you use as part of the learning cycle? What impact have you noticed for yourself as students reflect? Are there any areas you struggle with when implementing this practice?

Here are the resources that helped shape my thinking on this topic:

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Showcasing Student Work

Imagine this...your students have just completed a major project. After days, or weeks, or even months of research, collaboration, teacher-student conferences, and revisions, the projects have been presented, reflections have taken place and a final teacher evaluation given. You feel confident that your students have not only learned, but mastered the content. You're proud of their accomplishments as well as the fact that you resisted the multiple urges you had to put the kibosh on the entire assignment because it was getting out of hand. In fact, you already have ideas of how to adapt the project for next year's students.

And walk past the garbage and see the projects carelessly discarded. Wait! What?!?! Who would throw it away? It represents the figurative blood, sweat, and tears (maybe literally) of your students. Why? Why would they just throw it all away? Did it not mean anything to them? 

At one point or another, this has happened to every teacher who has dared to do a major project with their students. And we wonder why do the students not want to take their work home and keep forever and ever. 

I'm guilty of the following practice: teacher assigns the work, students work on the assignment, student presents to the class, teacher grades the work, teacher hands back the work, class transitions to a new concept rarely to ever consider the task again. Am I the only one? I took so little time to think about how to showcase my students' work. Maybe it's because I didn't explain how their work would be displayed to the public as part of the introduction to the project that students simply tossed their work in the trash after it had been graded.

In retrospect, grading should not be the last part of an assignment. Showcasing student work should be the final piece. Here's why:

  1. It gives purpose to the task. 
  2. It can often raise the quality of work produced.
  3. It builds community between the learner and their audience.
What should be displayed? How about anything that represents what your students are currently working on. Showcasing student work should not be limited to the art teachers. But we can take lots of cues from them. Every day we are asking our students to think like authors, scientists, mathematicians, and historians. And as such, we need to proudly showcase their efforts.

And now I'm going to make a bold statement...If your students are not producing work that is worthy of being showcased...your lessons need revision. 

Every.single.strand of the new 2016 ISTE Student Standards has at least one component that has something to do with students producing a demonstration of what they are learning. Review the standards for yourself and see if you agree or not. 

Now that I've gotten that off my chest...Where do you display student work?
  1. Does your school have a place to showcase student work? Maybe it's in the front office, maybe it's in the library or media center. If you have bulletin boards or display cases in your hallways, take a few minutes a month and have your students check out their peers' work. Go the extra mile and have students write Wow! notes to the artist, author, scientist, mathematician, and historian expressing appreciation and admiration. 
  2. Work with your local community centers to showcase student work. Your public library is a place to start asking. Your town's other public offices might also appreciate brightening up their offices with student creations.
  3. Ever considered assisted living facilities to showcase your students' work? Residents are always appreciative when they know that others are thinking of them. 
And let's not forget social media! 
  1. Do you have a blog or teacher website? Does your school? Photos of student work can easily accessed and more importantly shared to a larger audience.
  2. Posting student work on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram can spread the message that what students are doing in your classroom is important and valuable. It builds community with your followers and you are more likely to have support when you really need it if your family and friends and followers know not only what students are learning, but how they are learning.
  3. Take videos of student work and post them on YouTube. Take still shots of students' work, set it to music and viola! Instant showcasing availability!
Our students need to know that the work that they are doing is worthwhile. There is no better way of communicating this message than by showcasing their work. But let's not wait until the big projects are in motion. Get started today by posting what your students are doing - even if they're quietly taking an assessment, be proud enough to let your community know how hard your learners are working on showing what they know! 

Offering my BEST to you!

How often do you showcase student work?
What kinds of things do you showcase?
Why do you think the practice of showcasing student work is not a standard among educators?

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Have a Mic Drop Worthy First Week of School

Think back to your BEST first day of school as a student. What did the teacher do that made it so memorable? Chances are you didn't spend the time going over classroom rules and procedures, reading through the class syllabus or even learning each others' names. 

As educators we KNOW that these things are vital to the success of the classroom. But we also KNOW that it's one of the most boring things we have to do. Students certainly don't show up for school during the first week to sit through you yammering on about when it's a good time to sharpen a pencil or when the first big project is due. Students show up for the face-to-face social interaction with their peers.

So how do we leverage why students show up to school with what we need to get done? Funny you should ask...I have a few ideas on the topic.

But first a short story:

My student-teaching experience began on the first day of school in a junior high science classroom. As our students walked into the room, they saw all sorts of lab stations already set up on their tables. As my master teacher greeted them, she kindly requested that they refrain from touching the materials until they were given specific directions. Taking advantage of the first day when students are usually on their best behavior wanting to impress each other and the teacher, she took her time taking attendance. We could all observe who was willing to follow directions and who would need to have more direct "personal assistance" in being compliant. When she was ready, the teacher gave a few vague verbal directions (because slightly more explicit instructions were already on the table) about the tasks that were at each station and then asked them to begin working together. As students worked, the two of us went from table to table asking questions about the task and of the students themselves. The entire day went like this and it continued on into the second day as well. It wasn't until Day 3 that we explicitly went over any kind of rules, procedures, or syllabus.  

Here are the merits that I see in beginning the school year like this:
  • You aren't the one doing all of the talking - the students are. If your expectation for the rest of the year is for students to share ideas with each other, then you need to stop talking and give them the opportunity to speak. 
  • Students are working together to accomplish a task. If your expectation is that students collaborate throughout the year, you need to get their heads turned away from you and toward each other. 
  • In these stations, students had to solve problems and create something. If your expectation is for students to be problem solvers and creators, stop giving them worksheets (or even digital forms) to fill out.
  • If your goal is to get to know the students before the end of the week, how about having an actual conversation with them. Going around the room learning students names doesn't clue you in to how they think. But in finding out how they think, you just might also learn their names. 
  • As students are up and moving about, you very quickly learn which classroom boundaries need to be addressed.
When I put a similar activity into my first week lesson plans I found that after the activity was over, rather than going over specific rules one by one, the class could debrief, together, because now WE had a context to discuss the procedures, routines, and expectations. 

And as an added bonus we had discussions how to behave, how to treat others, how to be a self-advocate, how to challenge yourself, how to do quality work, and how to reflect and set goals. 

I won't pretend that every year, for every class, the discussions were like a Socratic seminar. Let's be real - it was the first week of school. But the tone had been set for the remaining 35 weeks of school. And that was mic-drop worthy for me! 

Are you wondering what options you might have to break the ice with your new class of students?
  • Task students with creating a scavenger hunt that will get their classmates examining various items, resources (please not a textbook - boring), spaces in the classroom or school campus.
    • Or if you want to create the hunt, use QR codes or even the Aurasma app to keep it engaging!
  • Get students in groups and have them construct a structure that will do something. Who says that this type of activity is limited to science? Imagine the chatter that would be created if you did something like this in English! Visit my Pinterest page to start collecting ideas!
  • Do you have money left over from your summer paycheck? Go and invest in materials to conduct a BreakoutEDU. Back to School Breakouts were just posted within the last 24 hours of this blog post. (Breakouts are a twist on those Escape the Room experiences.) Now that you have the materials for a Breakout, you can do them throughout the year! 
Here's to not only mic drop worthy first week of school, but a whole year's worth! 

Offering my BEST to you!

What other ideas do you have to add to this list of first day of school activities? 

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

My Favorite Day

Photo by: @BethanyLigon (2016)
My favorite day of the school year has come and gone. From the photo above you may be tempted to think that Graduation Day is the day that I am referring to, but while that certainly is in the Top 10 of great days in the life of a teacher, I actually get more excited about the day BEFORE all of the commencement ceremonies take place - the day when the grounds crew set the field.

I've mentioned before that the district in which I have the privilege of working is small. We have three elementary schools, one junior high and one senior high school. And the town is rich in tradition, one of those traditions being, we still hold a special ceremony for our promoting eighth graders on the high school football field. 

As a classroom teacher, driving by the football field on the day that they set the chairs and paint the field, would always stir in me a feeling of relief. Relief that I made it through another year with seventh and eighth graders. Relief with a sense of satisfaction that I had given those 135 students my very best on every single day - I poured my heart and soul into what I did for 180 days. Not every day was a great day, but I never backed off, never gave up, persisted through the tears, and was inspired by the successes. 

This is the day that the stress starts to roll off my shoulders. The day when I look forward to soon being a "normal" person, not a teacher who is hyper-aware of every movement and every noise and every bizarre odor within my immediate surroundings.

This day is my personal celebration. Yes, Promotion Day is exciting for the students and their families. But the day before is MY DAY. 

This is my first year as something other than a classroom teacher. This year was much different - my responsibilities didn't demand the cat-like reflexes that are standard for every teacher I know. And if I smelt something awful, I could just walk away rather than trying to figure out the source. 

The biggest difference, I think, has come from the type of emotional and intellectual connections that I did or rather didn't make with highly emotional 13 and 14 year olds. I have missed that this year. Those students of mine had a way of making me feel the highest of highs and the lowest of lows all in the span of one class period. (That sounds like I am some sort of crazy emotionally unstable adult, but I promise that I'm really OK.) But it was those dynamic days that confirmed that I was making a difference. Now my confirmations come in other ways from often more emotionally stable adults.

Yesterday was our Promotion Day. The principal of the junior high asked if I would still participate in the ceremony and be a line leader as students walked onto the field to take their seats. And as we made our way down the center aisle passing the numbers 2 0 1 6, I got a bit emotional knowing that this promoting class of eighth graders would be my last students. This day was about them and their accomplishments thus far and all that lies before them. 

I am happy and excited for them and glad that they have this day because I already had My Favorite Day.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Pep Talk I Wish I Would Have Given

Remember the scene from "You've Got Mail" when Shopgirl (Meg Ryan) is lamenting to NY152 (Tom Hanks) about her inability to have a satisfactory retort on the spot whenever someone says something to her that causes some sort of distress?

That's me. 

I'm always thinking of just the right thing to say about 6 hours later. And it's not just when I'm under pressure that this happens. It happens for completely random conversations too. And sometimes it can take much longer than 6 hours. 

How about 12 months later? 

This is what happened to me last night. As I was going through my nightly routine of getting ready for bed, a former student, let's call him Harold, randomly popped into my thinking. 

Harold was a hard case. He came to us as an 8th grader late last year. He had earned his way out of the alternative educational center and back into the regular classroom. But before he was at the alt school, he had bounced around from school to school, always getting into trouble. Not surprisingly, his home life sucked and as a result of all of this - his trust in adults, especially female teachers, was dirt-bottom low. And he found himself with us, four very strong-willed veteran teachers. Some might call that karma. For him, it was a blessing - he just didn't see it at the time. 

Like I said, Harold came to us late in the year. And in that short amount of time we worked and worked with him. And we began to see progress. For example, he actually spoke to us without grunting. He began turning assignments in. Then he began participating in my STEM challenges. He became a leader of a group because he could build the perfect paper airplane. 

But his confidence when it came to testing was shaky at best. He had never been a "good student". It took a lot of effort on our part to just to get him to attempt the state assessments and not completely shut down.

At one point, the four of us strong-willed veteran teachers had a sit down with Harold. We used all of the growth mindset, positive talk we could think of. And it seemed to help some. After all, he managed to make it to the 8th grade promotion ceremony.

But last night as I was getting ready for bed, the following conversation began in my mind and I wish that I could have said these words to Harold. Shoot, I wish I could have said these words to many junior high students that sat in my classroom over the years.

Harold, you like cars right? 


Imagine having an old Mustang convertible sitting up on blocks on the side of your home. It used to be drive-able, like for going to the grocery store. But over time, it just wasn't used much and now it just sits there.


Now imagine that your dad tells you that you're going to go on a road trip for your birthday. And as an gift, he's going to give you that old Mustang to fix up so that he and you can go to all sorts of places. How would that be?

Cool, I guess. I'd get a car.

Yeah! Exactly! Now imagine that you are that car. You used to be all shiny and new but now you just sit up on those blocks wondering if your owners have completely forgotten about you. But then like a miracle, you hear that you're going to be given new life! You're going on a road trip! If you were that car, Harold, how would you feel?

I don't know, I'm not a car. 

Just pretend, Harold. What might that be like?

Good, I guess.

Good!?! How about GREAT! That Mustang was made for driving with the top down and the music up! If you were that car, you would be thrilled because you were finally going to fulfill your purpose - to do what you were created to do! 

I guess.

Ok, so what would have to happen in order to get that car in working condition? You'd have to get it new tires and off the blocks, yeah? You'd have to change the oil, grease up the engine. Maybe replace or repair broken parts, right?


Would it be easy? Would it be quick? Would it be nice and clean? Heck no! 

I guess.

Harold, YOU are that car! And your brain is the engine. And we, Mrs. H, Mrs. A, Mrs. C and me are your mechanics. You've been sitting on the sidelines of class for way too long and now it's time to get back on the road. But in order for you to be ready, there are a few things that we are trying to do so that your "road trip" in school is successful and you don't go breaking down on us in the middle of your adventure. 

You were created to think, and to learn, and to create! And we're giving you the opportunity to do what you were born to do! Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's frustrating. But we're really good at what we do! You've got to trust us! There is only one thing that could sabotage all this work that we're willing to do in order to get you ready for doing well in school. Any idea what that could be?

I don't know.

Ok, what would happen if you put diesel gas into an unleaded engine? 

It would ruin everything. 

Exactly. Your attitude is like the gas that will make the engine inside your head go or stall. If you have a negative attitude thinking that everything sucks, all of the work that we're doing with you, will be for nothing. But, if you have a positive attitude, nothing will be able to stop you. You'll be able to keep going for as long as you want. 

Harold. We see you as a kid that has a lot to offer. We need you to work with us in making sure that you're ready to go out into the world and be an active participant with something to contribute. You can do this! It'll take a lot of hard work, but remember, we're really good at what we do and we will not let you down.

If only...Harold moved on to another placement sometime during the first semester. I have no idea how he's doing. I wish him the best. I wish all of those hard-knocked kids the best. I hope that there are adults in their lives that are "good mechanics" willing to put the effort in to restoring something much more valuable than a classic Mustang convertible. 

If you're still working in the classroom and have daily contact with a difficult student, do me a favor and do whatever it takes to breathe in new life to that child. He/she is worth the effort. 

Offering my BEST to you!

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