Releasing Control

In a matter of weeks schools will be opening in my state and across the nation.  Most students and teachers are anticipating a smooth start to a new school year.   For me, this summer has been full of opportunities to hone in my teaching practice and expand my PLN.  Reading Teach Like a Pirate and attending Playdatedg58 were two opportunities that stretched my thinking in preparation for a new school year.  This post is based on what I’ve learned through these events/activities.

1. Teachers have control (for the most part) and can take risks in the classroom

The experiences that I highlighted above have brought insight to the idea of teacher control in/out of the classroom.  Teachers  often have more control in their classroom than many educators would like to admit.  Besides the curriculum given to the teachers by administration, how much input do teachers have in how their classroom is constructed/run?  Speaking from an elementary teaching perspective, teachers have quite a few opportunities to modify their classroom environment.  Middle and high school may be a bit different as more than one teacher is in one classroom throughout a day.

The concept of instructional academic freedom often gives teachers the ability to teach how they feel best engages students in the learning process.  Of course this depends on how academic freedom is interpreted.  The book Teach Like a Pirate has reminded me that educators can take risks in their classroom.  Trying out a new teaching strategy can bring fruitful results.  Creating lessons that with unique hooks can engage students in new and exciting ways.  Students are more likely to retain and apply knowledge when their learning experiences are memorable.  Moving outside of general lesson plans that are often created by publishing companies, gives teachers the ability to differentiate lessons based on students’ needs. Engaging lessons might include lots of conversations, noise, excitement, wonder, curiosity, disarray … but also learning.  This may not always the norm in your building or school but I feel that action is needed to move beyond standardizing all schools, classrooms and students.

Now, I understand that not all teachers feel this way.  Some are in organizations that mandate specific teaching protocols that may limit teacher academic freedom in the classroom.  Also, some teachers may feel that they are unable to take these types of risks in the classroom because of expectations from administration.   If you find yourself in a situation where taking a teaching risk isn’t the norm, feel free to speak with your administration about the benefits of your idea.  Within reason, most administrators will support the enthusiasm and ideas that a teacher brings to the table.

2.  Give the control back to the students

Many of the teachers that I met at Playdatedg58 seemed to feel comfortable creating engaging learning opportunities for their students. I’ve found that most teachers want students to become intrinsically motivated to do their best. That motivation is vital in enabling student ownership in the classroom.  I’ve found that materialistic motivators to be less than stellar in developing student ownership.   Moving beyond materialistic rewards also communicates that some of the satisfaction gained from learning and accomplishing tasks is internal.

I remember being a student and rarely having input in classroom decisions.  It was informally communicated that the teacher was in control of what/how I learned, resulting in close to zero student ownership.  The near 100% teacher direct instruction didn’t help my situation. Fortunately this changed for the better as I progressed through elementary school.  I believe that giving students the opportunity to make decisions in the classroom is important.  It also communicates that the teacher has created an environment where there is trust between the students and teacher.  Creating that climate of trust is essential for student ownership.

How do educators create an environment where students feel comfortable and are encouraged to take ownership of their own learning?

Keep in mind that this list is designed for elementary students, but I’m sure it could apply to other grade levels.

Students are given opportunities to  …

  • Make classroom decisions – rubrics, what problems/assignments to complete
  • Set expectations – set rules for class
  • Set goals – analyze their performance, set personal goals, monitor progress along way
  • Give/offer feedback – use plus/delta, quality tools, reflect and offer input regarding learning
  • Publish their writing – use blogging platforms to publish/scan in digital works
  • Use social media – Tweet , Vine, Instagram, Twitpic throughout day/week/month
  • Participate in Student jobs – electrician, technician, paper passer, etc.
  • Journal – reflect on progress made and respond to written feedback by teacher
  • Setup the classroom – help in arranging classroom setup
  • Respectfully debate – participate in conversations about most effective way to solve ______.

I believe that a classroom is a community of learners.  To accomplish some of the tasks above teachers need to be able to step back and give students opportunities to take control/ownership. Many new teachers that I’ve encountered feel that if they allow students opportunities to express themselves they won’t be able to regain control and that will negatively impact their evaluations. I’m sure many educators have heard the sarcastic phrase “don’t smile till January” or something like that.  I’ve found that giving students opportunities to control their learning also benefits the entire classroom community.  Giving up some control in the classroom means that educators are willing to take a risk and create a classroom environment that enables students to take responsibility for their own decisions.

Student Self-Reflections

photo credit: karola riegler photography via photopin cc

Over the past few years my teaching practice has evolved.  Growth in the teaching profession often occurs through experience and professional development.  As continuous learners, teachers generally hone in on their craft over time.  I believe reflecting on teaching experiences plays a role in the professional growth of an educator.

  • How often are teachers able to reflect on their craft?

I’d hope that it would be more often than not at all.  Personally, reflecting on past experiences can lead to better decision making and goal setting in the future.  They’re many ways in which educators can reflect.  Off the top of my head I can think of:  after a professional development session, reading or commenting on a blog post, participating in an education twitter chat, attending workshops, and many more.

  • If educators feel that reflecting on experiences is important, why not give students opportunities to reflect on their progress?

Absolutely.  One way in which reflection has been beneficial in my classroom is actually rooted in the formative assessment process.  Local formative assessments give quality information that can be used to drive instruction in the classroom, while other data (standardized assessments) are used for district/state/nation purposes.  Formative assessment data not only serves the teacher, but it also informs students of areas of strengths and concerns.  Last year I decided to have my students use a reflection journal to analyze their own achievement levels in class.  Students reviewed their formative assessments, usually in the form of exit cards, and wrote a short paragraph regarding how they performed.  I asked the students to write a few sentences related to how close they are in understanding the concepts observed on the exit card.  Every so often, generally after a grading period, students were guided to setting individual goals for themselves. These goals were based on the journal entries and learning experiences throughout the grading period.  This process required modeling during the introduction phase, but after two grading periods the students were ready to complete this independently.

I vaguely remember using journals during my K-12 experience.  The teachers that assigned the journal entries rarely wrote any comments back to me.  This peeved me as a student and I’m over it still does as an educator.  Therefore, I make a conscious attempt to review all the student reflection journals and write short individualized comments to the students.  The comments show the students that their teacher is aware and cares about their progress.  This action is especially important to students that might not be as assertive in class or might be embarrassed to state how they truly feel.  I place an emphasis on the student created goal. Student goals are highlighted  as I will often share them with the parents to ensure that we’re all working towards the same end goal.

I also find that the student reflection journals show student growth on a personal level.  When growth is evident, students often gain confidence in setting new goals.  Reflecting on progress made can be a tremendous opportunity to set goals.  These goals can empower students to own their learning.

Side note:

 Reflections can take on many different forms.  Incorporating various prompts throughout the entire school year also communicates to the students that goals don’t have to be directly associated with scores.  In the past I’ve used field trips, current events, literature, and problem based learning activities for reflection journal prompts.  

* Feel free to visit Helen Barret’s reflection for learning site for more information on this topic.

Letting Students Decide

You Decide

Last week I decided to introduce one of my math classes with a complex algebra problem. The problem had multiple solutions and a variety of different ways to achieve the answers.  I grouped the students and they began to discuss methods to solve the problem. Each group was given an iPad, whiteboard and marker to get started.  After approximately ten minutes I had group coming up to me asking if they were on the right track.  I asked the students to decide on what path to take to solve this problem. The students waited for additional instruction but I decided to say no more. Often, students are looking for affirmation or some type of hint.  I told the students to rely on their math skills to validate why they think their solution is best. The students went back to their group and continued to work and validate their reasoning.  Students continued to have questions and I decided to answer those questions with questions that pointed students in the right direction. By facilitating and guiding I felt as though students were taking more ownership of their own learning.  After approximately thirty minutes student groups presented their answers to the class.  The majority of groups indicated that they hit multiple roadblocks, but eventually achieved some sort of success in finding a solution to the problem.  After listening to the presentations I concluded that the students took another step this year towards becoming responsible learners in the classroom.  Moreover, I found myself reflecting on what was communicated to the students during the process.

The words you decide can be powerful.  In a classroom setting, the words can enable students to make decisions that impact their learning.  Students need to be able to take ownership of their own decisions and what a teacher communicates can benefit or limit learning in the classroom. I’d like to move my students beyond the stereotypical systematic focus of finding the one right answer.  Mathematical understanding might not permeate when students feel that finding the answer is the only goal.  Giving students opportunities to make decision within a safe environment prepares them to own their own learning and become more accountable in the classroom.

What strategies do you use to encourage student ownership?

Photo Credit:  S. Miles

The Value of Self-Correction and Student Ownership

This year I’m continuing to find that student ownership plays a critical role in the learning process.  Students often become more responsible for their own learning when they are given additional opportunities to show their learning.  I’m finding that part of the key to increasing student responsibility depends on how it’s communicated by the teacher.  Students can’t be expected to own their learning without any guidance.  The gradual release of student responsibility can benefit the overal climate and achievement of a classroom.  In the past, I’ve used student journaling, plus/delta, surveys, choice boards, self-selected research projects, and other strategies to promote student ownership.  This past week I introduced another strategy that involves self-correction.  Here are the steps:

1.)  Students complete an assignment in collaborative groups or independently.

2.)  Students finish the assignment and self-correct using the Teacher’s Manual.  This can also be applied to digital progress monitoring tools.

3.)  Students independently use markers to indicate wrong/right answers.  If needed, students will write in correct answers.

4.)  Students utilize their math journals to reflect on the assignment and their feelings about the topic and achievement.

5.)  Student turn in their paper and journal to the teacher

6.)  Optional:  Students use multiple journal entries for individual goal setting

It might seem simple, but I’ve had terrific results from using this strategy.  Overall, I feel as though the students benefit from practices like this.  The self-correcting / journal process took modeling and practice at first, but the benefits are starting to become apparent.

Students That Own Their Learning

Image by:  Jscreationzs

After working on a math world problem for approximately five minutes I hear ….

“I don’t get this”

“I’m confused”

“I’m lost”

“I don’t know what to do”

I believe every educator has heard one or more of the above statements while teaching.  These statements don’t really help a student succeed in any class.  This type of student feedback is important, but the words themselves seem discouraging. When words like the above are communicated, I feel as though the classroom instruction isn’t meeting the students’ needs or students aren’t utilizing math problem solving strategies.  This post is going to focus on math problem solving strategies.

Image by:  I. Images

Teaching new math concepts often requires building on students’ background knowledge.  When students experience a challenging math problem, they generally have two options.  Students can become frustrated and quit or they can find a solution.  A discussion regarding this particular situation took place in the past after their was a major struggle with one particular math word problem.  As a class we had a brainstorming session.  The students came up with some ideas of how to overcome mathematical struggles.  We called these strategies the math tool belt.

During this discussion, the students began to recognize that the teacher will not solve all of their problems.   I pointed out that giving an answer without support isn’t learning.  In fact, I pointed out that I will help, guide, and assist, but they are responsible for completing the problem.  Making mistakes and having “I don’t know” moments are part of the learning process.  Having students reflect on their learning through journal writing may also benefit the student.  I feel that students should “own” or take responsibility for their own learning as @pammoran, @mthorton78, and @irasocol indicate.

Long-term retention infrequently occurs when students are required to just regurgitate what the teacher says.  Here are some of the math problem solving strategies we decided to use when confronting a complicated math word problem:

  • Read the problem and underline important numbers or information.
  • Cross out information that isn’t needed
  • Create a visual model (chart, graph, or table)
  • Indicate what operations will be needed
  • Restate in your own words what the question is asking
  • Work backwards – keeping the end in mind
  • Write steps needed to solve the problem
  • Guess and check
  • Look for a pattern
  • Estimate and use logical reasoning to solve
  • Use manipulatives to solve (students can just grab them off the shelf and use as needed)
  • Use a formula
  • Work in collaborative groups to brainstorm what steps can be taken to solve the problem
  • Use a ratio / proportion to solve the problem
  • Ask the teacher for help
In an effort to foster resilient and responsible citizens, I ask the students what problem solving tool they used before they ask me for help.  This also reminds the students that they should be utilizing the tool immediately in the learning process.  I believe that students need to understand that their effort (not mine) leads to individual achievement.  Creating a classroom environment that encourages learning through engaging and relevant instruction is vital, but I feel as though students need to “own the classroom and their learning.”  When students are stumped or are struggling with a math problem, they need to have the tool belt readily available to power through the obstacle.  Giving opportunities to utilize the tool belt gives students positive experiences of overcoming obstacles and builds confidence. Students become owners of their learning and they find that their learning experiences are primarily controlled by how they react to the problem.  Overcoming obstacles will develop confidence so that the next time they encounter a complicated problem they will reach for the tool belt and be successful.

 Additional Resources:
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