Monday, April 13, 2015

5 Practical Ways For Teachers To Transform Learning Through Strong Student Relationships

     We read and hear a lot about the importance of relationships in the field of education. It’s mentioned in numerous writings, trainings, meetings and programs. Most educators agree that it is important.  I would argue that it, in the end, is the most important. Indeed, learning cannot be maximized or optimized without great relationships. Secondly, students will only have a potentially transformational experience if they connect with and truly enjoy working with their teachers.

(Photos Courtesy of Minarets High School and Buchanan High School)

     Here are some practical tips of how to approach enhancing one’s relationships with any and all students:

1)    Accessibility - make yourself available.  Personally, I was giving out my cell phone number since that technology emerged. I figured if my students wanted to contact me, they should be able to.  They usually don’t need to. But when they did, it was almost always easy communication for me and important to them.  Just because they have my cell phone doesn’t mean I’m available 24/7.  Calls, texts, etc. still operate on my timeline. But it’s nice to get the info and to “be there” in some capacity.  If you think we’re so important that students are just dying to contact us or misuse our contact info, then think again.  We’re not that important.  But for those that need it, it’s there.  And it sends a subconscious and psychological message to them that we do care and they can access us.  For me, I’m happy to connect on social media because my biggest priority is to be accessible.  I have nothing to hide and again they don’t think we’re that important. Don’t want to give out your # or connect on social media?  Google Voice is a great option.  And if not that, how about just being in your classroom before school, or at lunch, or after school to be available?

(Actual Text Conversation with 2014 Minarets High School Graduate)

2)    Student Voice & Choice – giving people choices and options is a powerful psychological tool that creates empowerment, buy-in and higher-level learning.  For years, we have had teacher directed and dominated classrooms that produced limited results, lower level thinking and compliance at best.  If you want higher-level thinking, you have to empower them.  Choice and student voice will lead to that.  In a project-based environment, for example, it’s easy to create choice.  Teachers may come up with the challenge or driving question, but students can choose the type of final product or project. Indeed, I know several teachers who create project menus allowing students to choose their questions, their challenges, their final products, their readings and more. In terms of voice, ask your students.  That’s right.  Ask them what they think and what they want from their learning.  Students should be surveyed, formally and informally, on a regular basis.  That’s how you and they learn.  It facilitates reflection for both students and teachers when learning and learning experiences are assessed.

(Student Survey Data Courtesy of Former Minarets High School Teacher Jon Corippo)

3)    Creating Significance – make all of your students important.  One way to do this is to create roles and make sure all students have a chance to serve in a meaningful and vital role.  What if every class had at least one or more Student Tech Coordinator, Class Documentarian/Historian, Class DJ, Class Media Specialist, Class Marketing or Promotions Person, Project Coordinator, Project Leader, Class Organizer, Class Celebration Coordinator and more? Teachers have lots of needs.  Have students serve those needs while expanding their roles as leaders, specialists and facilitators.  Get them to own something in your class.  Certainly, roles and duties can rotate as well.  But students have talents and skills that can help the entire class function more smoothly while increasing their buy-in, responsibility and engagement. Think also about class competitions, recognition, rewards, special activities and celebrations and more.

(Photos Courtesy of Buchanan High School and Minarets High School)

4)    Music – we all know that music is a powerful connection for students.  It’s personal and life altering.  First, get to know their music.  Find out what artists they like and ask about them, feature them, play and promote them.  I wasn’t always a huge speed metal or hip hop fan, but I learned about them, asked about them and showed respect for them.  When I played music in my classrooms, I didn’t just play “my” music.  I also played or featured theirs. Trust me, if you have a student that is disconnected or disengaged with your class, long-term investment and interest in “their” music will potentially have some of the biggest payoff.  When I was an activities director, we used to do noontime activities.  One of our most successful ones was our Guest DJ Program.  Instead of us playing our selected music at lunch, we would take applications from students to play “their” music at lunch.  Naturally, it had to be school appropriate in terms of offensive language, but genre was open territory.  To see the most disengaged students at our school sign-up to play their death metal or electronic music, as two examples, was amazing.  First, they were excited.  They went through the process to be able to own the campus airwaves that day at lunch.  Some students didn’t like their music and complained.  I had to continually explain that as long as the lyrics were not profane, we could not judge their music. So not only did we get disengaged or uninvolved students engaged and involved, we ended up teaching valuable lessons to the student audiences daily.  Music is a life-changer. Use it.

(Photo courtesy of Clovis High School and Minarets High School)

5)    Food – I don’t know where this idea of food and learning together became taboo.  Do you know any professional settings where they don’t have food on a regular basis? I don’t.  I’m not saying students should eat anything and everything with no parameters (after all sunflower seeds are a mess). However, what if you allowed them have food at certain times (for class breaks, celebrations, progress, mastery, achievement and so on)? Food is our most universal culture commonality and your classroom is a culture.  So, bring in the chow.  Throw a party, have them potluck, and offer food prizes or incentives if and when you can. Want happy workers? Feed them.  Look at corporate giants like Google and Facebook for models. They feed their creative and engaged employees constantly. I’m not saying you have to finance this.  Just allow them to bring it in and they will.  High schools students have a constant appetite for food and it can make a huge physical and mental difference in the work they produce. Experiment with what works for you and your students.  But the idea of classrooms being food and snack free is something that came from that outdated teacher or school manual that never worked to begin or ever.

(Photos Courtesy of Minarets High School and Buchanan High School)

     These are certainly not the only relationship-building tips teachers can deploy. We each have own ideas and methods of connecting with students. The important thing is that we focus on it and maximize them for truly transformational learning experiences. Whatever we do, we need to revisit them regularly and make them all part of our consistent classroom culture.  The days of using fear, intimidation or professional distance are long gone.  Students are waiting to connect with their teachers as mentors and learning guides.  Certainly, students will be more engaged and ultimately more successful. Additionally, teaching, which has an immense number of systemic challenges, will be more rewarding

Thursday, April 2, 2015

New Tech, New Standards, New Everything....Won't Matter Unless We Change Old Mindsets

        I recently had an epiphany. Ok, it’s a reminder, if you will, of what is truly missing in education.  If we really want our schools, and ultimately the learning experiences for all students, to be transformational, we have some basic, yet very foundational things that have to be addressed.
    And these foundational things have nothing to do with technology, standards, assessments, or other things that we are heavily engaged in and working on feverishly.
      I was reminded of what needs to be done, for example, as I see many schools and classrooms integrating technology.  I realize that unless we address pedagogy, but more importantly teacher mindset, technology won’t change or enhance much of anything.  And again, I could say this for the rest of aforementioned items as well.
       So, what are these basic, yet foundational items related to mindset that will help us truly transform our classrooms for all students?  Here you go:

Relationships Are The Most Important Aspect Of Teaching

       We hear and say this a lot.  But we need to make sure that relationships become the first and foremost aspect of all teacher training, all professional learning, all observations and evaluation, all instructional approaches, and all curriculum and technology integration. Whether you use the word mentor, coach, collaborator or others, teachers and all educators need to focus on students through building relationships. If teachers don’t get this and focus on it consistently, nothing else instructionally will matter and nothing will be transformed.  Those educators that realize that this is their first and foremost role in the classroom, have will also reap the rewards academically, intellectually, creatively and personally. In case you are wondering, very little, if any, attention is given to the art of relationship building during teacher education programs, teacher induction programs or most professional learning.  Therefore, we might think it’s important and know that it makes a difference, but we are not making it part of our institutional and formal pedagogy. Literally all aspects of 21st century and transformational learning will be based on relationships.  First and foremost is the student - teacher relationship.  This will, if done correctly, will be the beginning of great relationships and partners whether it’s peer-to-peer, student-community partner, etc.  But we have to make relationship building the core of our instructional pedagogy and on-going professional learning. As a principal, I had to non-reelect several teachers over the years. None of them were released because of lack of proficiency in technology, standards, assessment, or curriculum, but rather because they ultimately could not connect with students.

Belief In Who Students Are and What Students Can Do

      Like in most things related to education, there are two types of teachers.  There are those that believe in students and those that don’t.  Sounds simple right?  But do teachers assume the best or the worst?  Call it expectations or what you will. But it seems believing that students can and will do things - especially big, amazing things - is essential.  I only know from personal experience.  When I taught media in the early days, it was “don’t let students use this technology unsupervised.”  When I was an activities director, it was “don’t let students on the mic.” When I was a principal, it was “don’t let students on social media.” I didn’t like any of these directives because I BELIEVE IN STUDENTS. Whatever it is, it seems you have to break the rule or traditional expectation in order to create a learning environment where students know that their teachers and other adults believe in them.  Students know inherently if you believe in them. In an era of more project-based approaches that include choice, student voice, public products, tech use and real application, it will be our belief in students that will be the dividing line.  If we don’t believe, none of these things will matter or be realized.  But if we do, amazing and professional work can be produced by students of all ages. 

We Can’t Operate From Either Fear Or Compliance

     Many of our educational foundations are false realities.  In other words, we create either things to force people to do things (compliance) or scare them that if they don’t, bad things will happen (fear).  Whether it’s grades, detention, points, getting into college, graduating, etc., we need better reasons for students to buy in and do amazing work.  If we approach our classrooms and lesson design based on earning or losing points, or making some cut point for graduation or college, we are never going to instill intrinsic motivation and real success.  These can only come from students that are engaged in projects and activities that are meaningful, personal, real and that take them places.  I know this is tough.  But as long as we approach our instruction with the priorities being on points, grades and assessment as the starting point, we’re doomed to never be transformational.  We have to start with the focus on creating opportunities for our students for them to pursue higher level thinking through areas of personal interest, engagement and project pursuits. If students are doing incredible, professional and real world work, I assume that many smart people can figure out how to score, grade and assess it.  The points, grades, graduation and college will come in more powerful ways than ever imagined.  I know we have systems issues here that have to be addressed.  The more we can move to portfolio work vs. report card/test score work, the better.  The real world looks at one’s body of work and their ability to articulate that work.  Our schools and classrooms need to do that same.  This might be a simple idea, but it has complicated implications.

Students Have Interests And Need To Explore Them

     A lot is being written about passion and its connect to learning, education and schools.  This is tough too.  After all, school has successfully culled the passion, creativity and inquiry from most students long before they ever get out of elementary or middle school, let alone high school.  However, I still believe all humans have interests and passions.  Yes, for many young people it might start with video games and gaming, music, sports, media, etc.  But these are great starting points.  Indeed, there are thousands of real world projects, and yes eventually careers, that connect to these areas.  But more importantly, we need to model for and train students that they need to maximize their interests.  Everything we ready, write, present and pursue will be far better if it’s related to our passions or areas of interest.  All important skills can be taught with connections to personal interests.  To be honest, we need to re-visit our primary grades in school and learn to not lose that essential element of feeding students’ natural inquiry vs. eliminating it.  Students’ interests will change and evolve...and that’s ok right?  But we will use their interests as foundations to connect and engage.  We need to not wait until college to have majors.  We need to have students to identify interest areas early on and each year (or even more often) and have these serve as their learning themes/backgrounds.  After all, our goal is to make students natural and efficient lifelong learners.  This can only really be done if we continually connect their interests to skill acquisition and mastery.

Students Need To Be Trusted with Real Roles
and Tremendous Responsibilities

     We have to transfer ownership. We have to look at what we view as teaching, classroom organization, curriculum and instruction and begin asking how can the students assume the role of being in charge. All students need to serve a purpose.  And again, the purpose cannot be about points, grades, graduation or college.  The purpose has to be immediate and it has to be real.  When pursuing more relevant and real world work, there are natural needs that develop.  These turn into roles and we need to have students serve in those roles.  When I taught media or leadership, I always had students in coordinator roles.  There was no way I was going to keep track, monitor, supervise or even inspire all that needed to be done all the time. I needed to transfer that to students.  Students are dying to be in charge of something that matters and waiting for us to give up that control.  At my last high school, we created Student Project Coordinators (SPC’s for short).  Instead of just having a TA, what if classrooms had students that co-facilitated, co-supervised, co-managed, co-presented and co-lead the learning in the class?  Students have expertise. Students have skills.  Students have a need to facilitate. We only need to create and foster the environment where that is inherent. If we want them to assume real and responsible roles in their careers, they need to experience this now.

Where Our Focus Should Be

    So, instead of making our focus tech integration, new standards, assessments or whatever else occupies our time and focus, what if we truly focused on the following:

Relationships Are The Most Important Aspect Of Teaching
Believing In Who Students Are And What Students Can Do
Educators Cannot Operate From A Place of Fear Or Compliance
Students Have Interests And Need To Explore Them

Students Need To Be Trusted With Real Roles & Responsibilities

(images courtesy of Minarets High School)