Teaching Critical Thinking in the Age of BS, a guest post by media literacy educator Deborah Pardes

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#FactsMatter. Yes, they still do. But what matters more in this dystopian period in which we find ourselves is the ability to critically think. Finely-tuned minds have more muscle to rip through “alternative facts.”  It’s not a walk in the park – it’s a slug through mud. But as educators, it’s our job to pull each other along in support and in partnership.

I’m not teaching in schools K-12 on a regular basis. I find myself engaged directly with the public in what I call “family literacy” engagements.  It’s clear that critical thinking is not just a buzzword used to bring validity to disruptive teaching methodologies.  It’s a thing. It’s a hard-wired skill that is useful at all stages of life, in all contexts. In this discussion, critical thinking is the antidote to not thinking at all. It’s the lifeline that may save millions of people from becoming statistics in polls that measure who got fooled by whom and what advertising agency, political party or news outlet gets the credit for its brilliant ability to “frame” things for the lowest common denominator.

Before we can critically think, it’s critical that we know who we are – and what makes us tick. From this self-awareness comes an understanding of how confirmational bias works. So to bring this down to the street level – context is everything.  When I have a stuffed nose – what makes me tick is my need to un-stuff it.  When I bump into a piece of media that’s shouting about cold medicine – I will sit up at attention because I’m in the “help me” zone – I’m in pain – I need help.  My critical thinking is bypassed by my desire to believe in a solution. I’m pulling out my wallet. I’m buying it.

This scenario can be mapped onto anything – coal miners hearing that coal is finally coming back, alcoholics hearing that wine is good for the skin, vegans hearing that all meat causes cancer, etc.  Media will always and forever serve up healthy portions of both solid facts and constructed truths. That machine is well oiled.  It’s been running since the Guttenberg Press drank its first bottle of ink. As educators, we’re not going to stop misleading media from barking at us. We are going to encourage the life-long study of counting to 10, thinking critically during that time, employing basic media literacy tools, and doing the best we can at protecting ourselves from bullshit.

Here’s a great “Who Are You?” exercise for all age groups. It does a few things at once:

  • It helps people drill down to the 5 nouns that describe how they identify themselves as they unconsciously move through time and space. (Notice I said nouns, not adjectives.) Now they know who they are.
  • It prompts the discussion of the cost of seeing life only through one lens. This results in narrow-mindedness, more echo chambers, silos, etc.
  • It invites a 101 talk about the technology of algorithms, which track and map online behaviors to strengthen as oppose to challenge extreme bias
  • It allows for people to exchange identities as a mind-expanding practice.

Steps for “Who Are You?”:

  1. Each student gets an index card
  2. In elbow partners, one student asks the other “who are you?” 5 times.
  3. 5 nouns are written down (sister, fisherwoman, Christian, queer, artist, etc.)
  4. Partners switch to ask the other 5 times with the same process
  5. Index cards are handed to instructor
  6. This stack of cards is described by the instructor as the DNA on which marketers feed. Explain how online behavior –every click, snap and swipe is recorded and is informed by the nouns by which we describe ourselves. We read and respond to news, ads, and entertainment based on these nouns. We shop based on these nouns. Know that this awareness is now your POWER.  Know that you limit your world-view if you ONLY look at life in terms of these 5 nouns. Know that you give away a blueprint about yourselves if you are consistently living inside the constraints of your own bias.  This awareness is part of our commitment to critically think about both our smallest and biggest behaviors around consuming and sharing media.
  7. Pass back the index cards, making sure the students do NOT get their own index card back.
  8. Instruct them to take 15 minutes  to look at life “as if you are defined by these 5 nouns. Interact with all MEDIA as this persona. Surf online with this persona guiding all your decisions.” (This will flummox the algorithm in a good way)
  9. Give them index cards to take home to do this same exercise with their families to extend the conversation.
  10. Give credit: This specific process was architected by Arresting Knowledge

Understanding our own personal bias is a crucial first step in the more extended process of critical thinking about media. We are what we believe. We believe based on who we are.  News and information will always be hurled our way at an alarming rate. It’s powerful to know that there are tools to control and filter media as in approaches our most sacred space – influencing how we spend our time, how we spend our money, and how we cast our votes.

Deborah Pardes is the founder of Artists for Literacy. Her corporate, artistic and academic work focus on leveraging the power of artful communications to break down silos that limit our potential. Her portfolio of projects can be seen at DeborahPardes.com

Arresting Knowledge is a community engagement tour designed to spark and document a national conversation about media (news, social, entertainment, advertising) and its impact on our personal choices. These 90-minute live broadcast events will teach media literacy skills in the context of real-world examples.  We are a collaborative project, celebrating the contributions of dozens of teachers, artists and journalists. Without support and funding, this project will not thrive. Please join us. ArrestingKnowledge.com
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Two Teachers in One Classroom: Double the Trouble or Double the Success?

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For a variety of reasons, you could be placed with another teacher in your classroom, be it your school model or having students with special needs or children who are English language learners in your classroom.  

My first year of teaching I was an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, and on the first day of school, a teaching assistant showed up in my room, at the same time as my students.  At first I was flustered.  I had my routine all planned out, and nowhere in it had I accounted for another adult in the room.  How would we survive without stepping on each other’s teaching toes?  How would I make her feel valued as an instructor in our room?  How would we ensure that the students viewed both of us as guides in the classroom?  Fortunately, I lucked out with my teaching partner.  Shandi was a college student, studying education, and her love for the children was evident.  Although it was the first teaching experience for both of us, we were able to establish a friendship and healthy teaching relationship that allowed us to maximize our teaching results with our students, which only grew through our time working together.

One trap to avoid when there are two adults in the room is not using both instructors.  Too often, when I observe teachers, I see one teacher teaching, and the other standing to the side not doing anything.  Another common pitfall of co-teaching is lack of communication, and the teachers vying to speak at the same time over one another; this is confusing to students.  To avoid these dangers, here are some ways that I developed my team-teaching rhythm in the classroom with co-teachers:

Set the Stage for Success

When you are first working with a co-teacher is is important to carve out ample time at the beginning to get to know one another.  First, do something fun (grab lunch, go for a hike, etc) and learn about your partner.  Once you’ve done an activity to break the ice, establish common goals and state your preferences for how to collaborate together.  Be honest about your preferred communication style and what your priorities are for yourself, your classroom, and your students.  Share your vision, but be careful to listen to their ideas too, noting where there is overlap and where their might be areas that you need to compromise and discuss to get to agreement.  Set norms for how you want to communicate and work together.  Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses so that you can create a system where you support one another to your greatest extent possible.  

Create Time and Space for Ongoing Honest Communication

Having that initial conversation to set the stage is wonderful, but it is imperative to keep that conversation flowing daily.  Respect the norms that you’ve set up, and revisit them to see if they need to be shifted once you’ve started working together.  If something is bothering you, do not dismiss it, but bring it up in a way that promotes honest dialogue.  Bring up hard issues, and persevere through times of challenge.  Ask for your partner’s support to problem-solve.  Be open to constructive criticism, and be willing to compromise.  Be sure to keep the focus on growth, teamwork, and student-support.  

Mix Up Your Co-Teaching Models

You have two adults in the room with varied levels teaching experience and background- now what?  Nothing is worse than not utilizing both teachers or not having a plan for which teacher is doing what.  Below are some different models of co-teaching.  Play around with each of them, and utilize them all in your classroom.  Different models work well at different times during instruction.  Look at your lesson plan and discuss with your co-teacher what you both think would be the best use of your teaching skills.  

Also note, it is important to make sure that both instructors get to fulfill all roles throughout the year in order to establish credibility with the students.

Model One: Teach and Assist

In this pattern, one instructor is leading the activity, while the other instructor circulates and assists individual students.  

Model Two: Parallel Teaching

With this model, students are divided into two groups, based on ability or student needs. Each instructor takes half of the group and delivers the same lesson.  This model is a good option for smaller group discussions, labs, and situations where students need a smaller group in a classroom and more individualized attention.

Model Three: Teach and Observe

With ‘teach and observe,’ one instructor facilitates the lesson, while the other instructor observes and takes notes.  This model helps the team gain invaluable data that will strengthen their instruction.  Be sure to discuss with your partner in advance what you both think will be crucial to observe such as student behaviors or instructional patterns.  Be sure to find a time to discuss the observation soon after the lesson.

Model Four: Station Teaching

Each teacher sets up a station with different content.  For half of the lesson, students are with one teacher.  Halfway through, the students switch to the other teacher, and the each teacher repeats their lesson for the new group of students.  This is a good strategy that allows teachers to teach to an area of strength or interest.  It also allows students to get two mini-lessons, and breaks up the block.

Model Five: Differentiated Teaching

One teacher facilitates the main lesson, and a few students are pulled aside by the other instructor for differentiated instruction.  This is typically a good model to employ when you have students with IEPs or learning plans.  The smaller group instructor is still aiming for the same learning objective, but might change the process, product, or content to help students get there.

Model Six: Collaborative Tag-team Teaching

The two teachers on the team both facilitate the instruction to the full class.  This model requires the most instructional planning time together, and initially may even require you to develop a lesson pacing guide and script.  If not done correctly, this model may cause chaos as teachers talk over one another or seek to go in different directions.  Have a solid plan about who will be responsible for leading what, and how you will transition between instructors speaking and modeling.

Reflect Together

Once you find your rhythm, be sure to reflect together often.  Talk about the students’ successes and what you did as a team to enable them to achieve.  Talk about student struggles, and what you can do together to support those needs.  Having a thought partner will deepen your own reflection process and make you more accountable.  Your partner might also notice something that you missed.  Together, you can help each other be better.
With your powers of teaching combined, you can unleash the ultimate student-focused classroom!

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An Open Letter To Teachers from a Student with Learning Disabilities

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I sat there as the silence stretched on, my panic growing and growing.  I couldn’t think, let alone come up with the answer.  I sat there, ashamed and alone; no one understood me, least of all my teacher.

The way your brain functions is normal to you; the way mine works is normal to me. Because of this paradox of perception, it took me many years to understand that my classmates didn’t struggle the way I did.  As a kid, I wasn’t capable of that sort of comparison. I would encourage you as a teacher to remember that not everyone thinks and not everyone’s brain functions the same way.  It may be you who changes a student’s life by being that first teacher that tries to understand them, the first one to help them without judgement, the first one to believe them when they say they can’t do something.

You could be that person who changes a student’s outlook on school and life forever.

When you are young, you believe that adults must be right, and you trust them, always. That’s why if a child is struggling academically or emotionally it is important to find out where the student is coming from and why they feel the way they do.  Learning disabilities are not always as obvious as simple academic struggles. The most obvious way my learning struggles presented themselves was anger. There were many chances for many teachers to try and work with me and understand what was going on, but I was written off as a troublemaker because of my anger. There is always an underlying reason for students acting out, so try to understand why they are frustrated. You might be the first person to do so, and it may completely change a student’s life. Surprisingly, it took many years for me to have a teacher that really did want to understand and help, and that was only after my official diagnoses.

Create a Positive Learning Environment for All Students

Obviously, it’s a teacher’s job is to help students academically, but it’s also your job to create a positive learning environment. For me personally, the reason I hated math classes for so many years was less because of my actually disabilities, but much more so because of being humiliated in class.  What if my teacher called on me in class and I had no idea what the answer was? It took me much longer to do mental math than my peers, and my answer was often wrong.

The fear of that sort of humiliation is even worse than the disability itself. If you sense a student is not confident in a subject, find a way to work with them so that they are comfortable enough to focus on the learning itself.

Always Believe Your Students

Too many times I have been asked a question in class and I say I don’t know, my teacher has argued with me. “Yes you do, Elinor, I explained this last class” or maybe the response is laughter then “seriously? I just explained it.”  While these responses might seem harmless and may not have intended to traumatize, they are mortifying to a student with learning disabilities. That response, of laughter then “seriously?” was something actually said to me when I asked a question. This teacher knew about my disabilities, and I can remember that moment like it was yesterday. I never trusted that teacher in the same way again. If a student tells you they don’t know, even if you explained it seconds ago, don’t disagree. Just explain it again, or play it off as no big deal. Don’t make them argue with you about it. It takes courage to say you don’t know something, and believe me we are definitely aware if has just been explained.

Other Tips

The best teacher I ever had was so effective because because he learned what my struggles were, and was very good at making sure I never had those moments of pure embarrassment in class. He always made sure to phrase questions so I could answer them without embarrassment. When he worked with me one on one, he never treated something I didn’t know like I should know it: he was patient and would go over it again. I learned from him that my disabilities in math were not as bad if the learning environment was positive. My questions were always met with calm explanation instead of frustration that I hadn’t learned it the last time it was explained. A positive environment means a student can feel comfortable asking for help even if they struggle with that topic.

I can never be taught to learn the way others do. What I need from my teachers is for them to learn how I learn. Understand what my needs are, teach to those needs, and treat it like you are simply doing what’s normal. By eliminating the fear of humiliation, and fear of not being believed, it allows us, LD students, to focus on the actual learning, instead of avoiding the classroom in fear.

You can be that teacher that changes a student’s life. You can be the one who boosts their confidence despite their struggles. You can be the one who they still talk about twenty years later as being someone who completely changed their outlook on school, life, and learning. All it takes is a want to help and understand your students, diagnosed or not, and the consciousness to create a classroom that students who struggle won’t dread and fear. I had a lot of bad teachers who did not put in that effort, but I also had many who did. Those teachers that put in that effort have improved my life more than any of the ones who did not damaged it.  Those teachers are some of the most influential people in my life, and I would not be getting through college without them. All they did was try to understand what I needed without judgement.

Elinor Shapiro is a second year college student. She’s been diagnosed with math disabilities, written expression disabilities, and auditory memory disabilities.  She is the founder of Let’s Talk Disabilities, a blog by LD students for LD students (www.talkdisabilities.com).  In addition, she has run a support blog for others with math related learning disabilities for five years (lets-talk-dyscalculia.tumblr.com/) and is greatly motivated to help improve school culture and environment for others with learning disabilities.  

 

 

Watch What You Say: Improving Classroom Teaching Patterns

 

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After we’ve taught a lesson, we know exactly what we’ve said to our students and how it’s impacted the results of our lessons, right?  Not exactly.

When I reflect on how a lesson went, I normally focus on the student assessments, to see the results of how much of what I taught gets mastered by students.  This is not a bad practice to improve your teaching.  One day, however, a thought came to me that I might be able to strengthen my teaching by thinking about my communication patterns with my students.  

Videotaping yourself and then self-reflecting is one option, and enlisting another adult to make observation notes and then discuss is another great way to get objective data on your teaching style.

Here are some questions to take note of when reflecting on your communication patterns with students:

How much are you/your students speaking?

Often, newbie teachers think that teachers are speakers.  They have most recently come from higher education, where the majority of lessons are delivered as lecture.  For elementary through high school students, and even for most adults, this is a surefire way to create boredom, even if you are the world’s most fascinating lecturer.  The human attention span was measured at 8 seconds in 2013 (which is shorter than a goldfish’s).  To keep students engaged, you must allow them react, question, and actively do.  A recent study from Dartmouth revealed that you remember approximately 30 percent of what you see, you remember approximately 50 percent of what you hear and see together, you remember approximately 70 percent of what you say (if you think as you are saying it), you remember approximately 90 percent of what you do.

Have your observer or look at your video observation from your lesson to examine:

  • How long are you speaking?
  • How long are students speaking?
  • Is it a healthy ratio to encourage student thinking and learning?
  • Are there points where speaking too long leads to students “checking-out”?

What are you/students saying?

It’s not just about the quantity of teacher talk; it’s also about the quality of your interaction with your students.  Think proactively whether:

  • When you are talking, is it primarily to impart content, or to stimulate student inquiry?  
  • How many questions do you ask during a typical lesson?  And are the higher order thinking questions that stimulate critical thinking rather than factual regurgitation?
  • How many questions do students ask?  How deep are their questions?  How do you help them ask deeper questions?
  • Are there natural entry-points for exploration and discovery in your lesson?

What is the flow of conversation?

Many teachers think that if they are asking lots of questions that learning must be happening.  While it never hurts to model asking questions for students, many times when a teacher questions and a student responds, the flow of the conversation becomes a ping pong match.  Teacher-Student-Teacher-Student.  In this model, a student sees their role of communicating solely with the teacher or to supply correct answers or to ask a question to get “the right answer.”  A better model, that also supports students communicating with their peers, is one that encourages students to respond to each other and to build off of and challenge one another’s thinking.  To this end, examine:

  • How many times do students respond to each other directly?
  • Is there the teacher-student ping pong interaction going on?
  • How do you encourage students to build off of the ideas of others?  To respectfully challenge one another?

How can you best encourage all students to participate in the class conversation?

And then there is the fallacy that if any student is speaking that all students are learning.  Although some students do learn best by moving or writing or creating, all students benefit from verbalizing their ideas.  Speaking and questioning are also essential skills for students to develop.  To see how well you engage all voices in your classroom, examine:

  • How many of your students participate during your lesson?
  • Are there certain students who monopolize?  How do you encourage them to step back and leave room for others?
  • Are there students who don’t speak or speak less often?  How do you help them participate?  
  • Are there some students who are more readily able to engage during certain types of activities or through certain types of communication?
  • Do certain students need to write down or practice what they will say before speaking in class?

Creating lesson plans is essential.  So is analyzing student learning by assessing their work products.  But do yourself a favor and evaluate your own process of establishing communication patterns in your room.  The results will only bring more voices and more quality thinking into your class.  

So don’t delay, grab a camera or a teacher friend to take notes, and then watch what you say!

Are Rubrics Magic?

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When grading or teaching, have you ever wished that there was a magical way to make grading easier, eliminate “obvious” student questions about an assignment, and help students produce the highest quality work?  No need to use a magic wand: simply use a rubric!

A rubric is a chart that teachers use when assessing student learning to communicate to their students what their level of mastery is for a set of skills, learning products, or processes.  It is a systematic way of giving students feedback, but beyond that, it has many additional benefits.

You might ask, why use a rubric?  Doesn’t it take too much time to create them for assignments?  Isn’t it just one more thing to mark up?  Quite the contrary!

Here are some great reasons to use rubrics:

Rubrics Help Teachers Strengthen Their Planning Process

Writing a rubric helps instructors think about what parts of the assignment are most crucial to learning.  Sometimes when you create a rubric, you see that you need to retool the assignment to prioritize certain skills or to build in additional learning opportunities.  You might see that you are hitting the same skills over and over, and that you might need to branch out in your curricular design.  

But rubrics are also helpful to teachers in others ways.

Rubrics Make Grading Easier

When grading, have you ever found yourself writing the same comment on student papers over and over again?  If you have a rubric created, it’s much easier to have that comment there as one of the skills and to circle or highlight it.  Think of how much time you’ll save!  

The benefits to extend to students too.

Rubrics Give Students Clarity On the Assignment, Allowing them to Produce High Quality Work

Similarly, have you ever found yourself answering the countless questions from students about what they need to do to succeed on an assignment?  It’s frustrating for teachers and students alike!  Creating a rubric eliminates all of those pesky/repetitive questions because the parameters for success are clearly laid out for the students.  Make sure that students can see exactly what they need to do to receive the highest level for each category in the rubric.  After you read through your rubric with your students, they will have the recipe for success.  You will notice a marked improvement in the quality of work that you receive from students if you make it clear what is expected for each part.

Rubrics Help Students Understand Your Feedback Better and Improve in the Future

The levels on a rubric are associated with a numerical score, making it easier to come up with and justify a grade on an assignment; this makes rubrics a very fair way to generate a score.  Furthermore, having clear categories helps students see where they succeeded and where they need to improve.  Students will see grading and feedback as interconnected, and will look beyond the grade towards improvement.  

Now that you are sold on the magic of rubrics, here are the best tips for creating one.

How to create a rubric:

  1. Come up with four to five categories for skills that you are assessing for a project, making a row for each skill.  For instance, for an oral presentation for science class, you might assess quality of research, structure of presentation, critical thinking, and speaking skills.  Be sure not to generate more than five categories, or it becomes too confusing for students.
  2. For each category, create five boxes (1-5, with 5 being the highest).  Write the 5 (high score) box first.  When you think of the “perfect” embodiment of that skill, what is it that comes to mind?  Fill that in the high score box.  For instance, for quality of research, you might write, “student includes at least 5 facts from credible sources and all 5 facts support the presentation’s main point.”  For the remaining 4 boxes, adjust the top level down accordingly.  Repeat for the remaining categories/skills.
  3. That’s it!  Not too hard, huh?

Some other helpful hints:

You can create rubrics that are not specific to one assignment, and reuse them every time you do that type of activity.

You can use rubrics that other teachers have created.  One great resources for this is a website called rubistar: http://rubistar.4teachers.org/index.php  Search thousands of pre-created rubrics, or use their simple tool to create and share your own!

Now you are rubric savvy- Let the magic begin!

Peace, Detente, and Protection: What to Do When You and Your Administrator Don’t Get Along

 

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You don’t know what happened (or maybe you do), but you and your supervising administrator just didn’t hit it off.  This situation can be really anxiety producing because this person is responsible for evaluating you.  You might even feel like they are outwardly antagonistic towards you.  You want to do well at work and get along with people, and put the focus on your students.  Here’s the good news: it’s probably not something you did.  It’s sometimes shocking for students to students to see their teachers outside of school, because they don’t think of them in the context of being human, merely teacher (it’s like a celebrity expose in People Magazine, “Teachers, they’re people too!”)  In a similar way, teachers (even as adults) can forget that admin are people, and not all people are terrific.  I like to think, as one myself, that most people become an administrator to help support teachers, students, and the school.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the case sometimes.  Some administrators forget the struggles of being a teacher, or have a leadership style that’s quite authoritarian.  

So what’s a teacher to do?  

The three steps below outline a proactive plan to improve your situation at work.

Level Yellow: Lukewarm Relationship- Try to Repair the Warmth

If you feel confident enough, and the relationship has not devolved into outwardly hostile behaviors, try to extend an olive branch (even if you were not the one acting in the wrong).  Invite your admin to join you for a cup of tea and try to connect on a human-to-human level.  Ask them about what they were like as a teacher, ask them about their interests.  Tell them about your life, family, and passions.  By humanizing yourself to them, and showing you are a friendly person, who is also interested in them, you make it more difficult for them to be grumpy to you.  In the same way you wouldn’t give up on a difficult student, be persistent with your admin in improving their level of their comfort with you; it may take a bit- be patient.

Level Orange: Professional Coexistence- Seek a Working Relationship

If you have tried persistently to build a personal rapport with your administrator, and it hasn’t worked, the next step is to set up professional expectations.  Now that you’ve reconciled yourself to the fact that you and your administrator may not be friends or even friendly, it’s important to re-establish communication patterns that make you feel both comfortable.  If they send you an email where the tone makes you feel uncomfortable, reply professionally and courteously in the tone you’d like used towards you (model proper communication for them!).  Make a point to let them know that they are always welcome in your classroom, but keep a low profile about contacting them for anything else (the squeaky wheel gets the grease).  Be sure that you are on-top of any paperwork they expect you to have.  Essentially, keep doing everything you are supposed to, but don’t draw attention to yourself.  Keep your focus on your classroom and your students.

Level Red: Protect Yourself

Now let’s say you’ve tried being friendly, and tried being professional, but things have escalated, and now your administrator has made full-on aggressive moves towards you (ie publicly rebuked you, filed a complaint against you, or asked for an unwarranted disciplinary meeting).  Clearly, they have marked you as an enemy or persona non-grata at the school.  The most important thing is to continue to teach and do your job to the best of your ability.  Do not give this person any ammunition or reason to find fault with you.  Keep rigorous copies of emails so you can advocate for yourself if the need arises.  If you are required to meet with them, bring a third party as mediator and objective witness (union reps can fulfill this duty).  Be sure to be compliant with reasonable requests that they make, and don’t do them grudgingly.  Most importantly, do not complain about them to anyone at work (things have a way of getting around at schools, even from people you trust).  Leave the cathartic complaining for people outside of your work environment.  Rise above the emotional tone they have created, and take the moral high ground.  After all, you aren’t there to make them happy, you are there to teach and be there for your students!
Teachers, what other tips do you have for dealing with unprofessional administrators?

What is executive functioning, and why is it important in your classroom?

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Ever look inside a student’s backpack or binder, and it looks like a bomb went off inside?  Ever have a student who will blurt out seemingly random things?  Or, ever have a student who sits for long periods of time, hesitating to start a learning task or activity? If you have seen these behaviors in students, these may be signs of executive functioning issues.

Executive functions are “a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation” (www.ldonline.org).  These functions are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain, and, if impaired, it makes it very difficult for a child to find success in your classroom, even if they are highly intelligent and want to learn (which is all children in my belief).

Although executive function issues are more common than one might think in students (and adults), how to recognize students struggling with executive skills and how to address these behaviors once you notice them is not often covered in general education classes, and only sometimes in special education classes.  

The school I work at is specifically geared for students who struggle with executive functioning.  Below, I have provided a list of the key skills, and strategies that we use at our school to support students’ growth.  

(Honestly, these are skills that anyone, regardless of their level of executive function could benefit from working on… I know I could!)

Some executive function skills impact a student’s oral and written work production, primarily, the first four listed below.

Executive Function Skill #1: Organization

This skill enables a student to keep track of their belongings, assigning them a logical place.  If a student struggles with organization, they might frequently leave belongings behind, or not have a system for filing papers.  This skill also enables students to keep track of things mentally, and if they struggle with it, they can easily lose track of what they were saying.

Strategies: Come up with routines and explicitly teach students organizational skills.  Make a “home” for things at their desk, in their notebooks, and in their backpack.  When things are missing, have them think back to where they were left.  To prevent things from going missing in the first place, create and use checklists.  When a student loses his train of thought, be patient, and have him write down a mental map of what they are trying to say.

Executive Function Skill #2: Initiation

Students who struggle with this skill find it difficult to start tasks.  You might see them sitting there frozen, uncertain of where to begin.

Strategies: For this type of student, provide step by step instructions in writing.  Sit down with them at the beginning of a process to ensure that they understand not only what to do to start, but what they need to do at each step in order to successfully complete the process.  Be sure to do frequent check-ins throughout the process, and celebrate successful completion.  That will make them more excited to start the next time!  

Executive Function Skill #3: Planning

When a student plans, they set-up a goal, create steps to get there, and figure out which parts are the most important to getting there.  If a student struggles with this skill, they either cannot think of the ultimate goal, or, if they can think of the goal, have trouble prioritizing the and/or sequencing the steps necessary to get there.

Strategies: Help this student generate their final goal/outcome collaboratively, then, scaffold the planning process.  This scaffold might involve talking through the planning process, or offering them a flowchart and feedback to guide their thinking about the plan.

Executive Function Skill #4: Working Memory

Students who struggle with their working memory may forget directions, even if they have repeated multiple times.  They also may lose track of what they are doing in the middle of a process because they have forgotten what they are supposed to be doing.

Strategies: Have the student verbalize their process; this increases the likelihood of them remembering what to do.  For students whose working memories are severely impacted, chunking the assignment into smaller parts based upon how much they can remember can be helpful.  These students can also benefit from having written directions for all tasks, and from having notecards during assignments and tests with factual information, which can enable them to perform more in depth critical thinking.

This next four executive functions are more related to a student’s behavior:

Executive Function Skill #5: Self-Awareness

A self-aware student is able to perceive social reactions from others, and see how their own actions create responses in others.  Students whose executive functioning is impacted may not be aware of how others perceive them or aware of actions that they take (or even sometimes of annoying noises that they make).  They may also not be able to objectively understand how they are doing with learning in your class.

Strategies: Point out behaviors that they exhibit that are non-preferred in a learning environment, and explain to the student (privately) how they are impacting others.  For instance, you might tell a student, “when you click your mechanical  pencil repeatedly, it interrupts other students’ focus.”  Build a relationship where a student feels comfortable asking how others are reacting to them, and make it clear that you are comfortable with them asking this.  Have students develop an understanding of what “self-awareness” is, and have them keep a journal of their self-impressions, which you can review with them and tell them which parts are accurate and which are not.

Executive Function Skill #6: Inhibition

Students who have strong executive function can inhibit impulsive behaviors.  Those who do not, may blurt out comments at inappropriate times, touch things they are not supposed to, or jump to conclusions without taking time to think about an issue.

Strategies: Make behavioral expectations clear, and use positive reinforcement with positive behaviors are performed.  It is also good to offer students an alternative.  For instance, if you know an impulsive student will be in a room with many exciting things she might grab on a table, instruct her to put her hand in her pocket or to grab the table leg to avoid the non-preferred behavior of grabbing an item of the table.  If a student says something impulsive, make them aware of the inappropriate nature of the comment in a non-judgmental way, and tell them what a more appropriate response would be.  

Executive Function Skill #7: Emotional Control

Students who do not have emotional control may overreact to peer’s comments or teacher’s comments.  If they have an emotional outburst or tantrum, it may take them a long time to be able to calm themselves.

Strategies: Let the student talk about how they are feeling in a calm, safe place.  Be sure to catch them when they are “in control” and compliment them.  Also, helping the child find a coping strategy that works for them personally can go a long way, whether it’s to take a cool-down walk, to write in a journal, paint a picture, or go speak with a friendly adult who might tell them a joke or funny story.

Executive Function Skill #8: Flexibility

Students who are flexible do well with changes, transitions, and perspectives different than their own.  Those who struggle with flexibility also struggle with those three aspects.  An assignment changing, a teacher getting sick and having a sub, or participating in a debate all might be difficult for a student who struggles with flexibility.  Their rigid thinking can also cause them to think of thing in life as “following rules” that cannot be broken.

Strategies: To help with their rigidity, take opportunities to show them that “rules” can be bent and the outcome is still positive.  For instance, when playing a game, show them that changing the rules slightly might still make the game fun.  This starts to show them that flexibility can be ok.  Also, if you know any transitions or changes are coming up, it is healthy to warn the student and help them think of how to be prepared for the change.  Lastly, to help the student be open to different perspectives, be sure to expose them to curriculum that prizes lots of different perspectives on issues in math, science, history, and language arts.

When we teachers help students who struggle with executive function skills work on these strategies, they feel more comfortable learning in our classrooms, and feel, as one of my students said, “like my teachers finally get how I learn.”
What executive functioning strategies do you use with your students?

Moving Beyond Tolerance: Teaching Students to Stand Up and Act

 

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In schools today, anti-bullying campaigns are widespread.  The messages they send are strong: don’t be unkind or mistreat others, include everyone, and treat others the way you would like to be treated.  These messages are definitely important.  These messages need to be taught.  These messages are not enough.

The issue with these anti-bullying campaigns and slogans that prioritize tolerance is that they stop woefully short of the education that students need to be a decent human being in our world.  The fact is that humans are different from one another, by accident of birth or by choice, and that beyond respecting these differences, students, and the adults they grow up to be, should feel a moral imperative to protect others who are different for the sheer fact that they are a fellow human being.  There will be bullies in life; it is not enough not to be one of the bullies.  Students must feel the need to unite against bullies, to take on oppression.  How do we as teachers encourage young minds to stand up in face of discrimination and hatred, to fight for the rights of someone who looks and sounds drastically different than them?

Learn from the Past

It is never too early to expose children to the examples of those who righteously fought for the rights of others who were different from them.  Show students examples of people who were allies, standing alongside groups fighting for equality and acting against violence and hatred.  Teach them about Rabbi Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr for Civil Rights in Selma.  Teach them about Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who saved close to 40,000 Jews from the Holocaust, risking his own life by issuing them visas.  Teach them about Asa Kent Jennings, an American who saved 250,000 during the Armenian Genocide.  Teach them about Frederick Douglass, who addition to being an outspoken abolitionist, attended the Seneca Falls Convention, and never wavered in his support of women’s rights.  Of course it is essential to celebrate all who are activists fighting against social oppression, but by additionally highlighting heroes who acted for those who were different sends a clear message to students: true heroes stand for all of mankind.

Look at the World Today and Act

When anti-bullying is taught, the scope is often quite narrow: students are told to look at their school and think about how to maintain a community of respect and tolerance.  A more active approach is necessary.  If students are exposed to real-world issues in our nation and world, and taught how to speak up, they will become compassionate and active adults.  

Teach students about the refugee crisis in Syria.  Teach them about the genocide in Darfur.  Teach them about racial, gender-based, and religious conflict present in the United States.  It is a given that students are already being exposed to these issues on social media.  Allow safe spaces for honest discussion and create assignments with real-world relevance.  Ask students to think of a group that is different than their own background, and to act on behalf of them.  An advocacy campaign is a great way to satisfy the common core standards on persuasion, and even a math assignment can look at statistical analysis of the refugee crisis.  Schools can, and should, become places that create our next generation of citizens. We, as teachers, need to ensure that this generation is tapped into the needs of our entire community and world, and prepared to stand up for them.

Build for the Future

What will our future look like?  Will it be one that perpetuates hatred and violence, or one that celebrates diversity and fosters a community of mutual support?  Look at your students.  They are our tomorrow.  Tolerance is not enough.  We must expect more than tolerance from them, and push them out of their comfort zones to act.  Students must tear down stereotypes, raise their voices alongside marginalized groups, and advocate for change on behalf of others.  And we, as teachers, must lead this charge. If we do so, I am confident we can build a better world and a stronger tomorrow.

Discovering an A+ Grading Style

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I teach for free, but I’m paid to grade, I often joke to colleagues and friends when talking about my job.  10 out of 10 teachers agree that grading is the absolute worst part of the job*: it’s time-consuming, focus-intensive, and just straight up boring a lot of the time.  If feedback didn’t help promote student growth so much, I’d be tempted to outlaw grading altogether.

Here are some tips that I and my teacher friends have come up with to minimize the pain of grading.

You Can’t Take It With You (Or you can… it’s your choice)

I have a friend who teaches AP European History who refuses to leave campus until all of her grading is done.  She says that being at school helps her get into “the grading zone,” that there are less distractions in her classroom, and that she is able to enjoy her home and focus on her family much more when she leaves school with everything completed.  I, on the other hand, like nothing better that leaving school immediately with my satchel of essays and assignments, going home, putting on my jammies, making some chamomile tea, and taking out my purple pen to start grading (I even manage not to get any tea on my students’ papers most of the time).  You can decide to take brain breaks as needed (which I tend to do every 45 minutes or so), or just power through until everything is graded.  See what works better for you, and consider where and how you’ll be more focused, productive, and comfortable.

Create A Grading Oasis

Segueing off the last point, what environment is most conducive for you to focus on grading?  Sterile and efficient, or warm and comfy?  How much sound do you like, and is music helpful to your process?  Look at the space where you typically grade: is it comfy and free of temptations and distractions?  Is working with a partner who is also grading nearby motivating or distracting?  Examine your grading spot feng shui, and redesign if needed.

Use a Rubric

What are the specific elements that you are hoping for students to improve upon for the specific assignment?  Pick no more than 5 key aspects, and write a rubric.  That way you can highlight and circle the areas on the rubric where the student falls, saving ample time.  If you share the rubric with your students in advance, they are clear on what they need to do to find success on the assignment, and are more likely to do well.  This website has plenty of pre-created rubrics wby teachers, and you can also create your own: http://rubistar.4teachers.org/  

Be sure to write one additional, personal line of feedback on every rubric as well to make the feedback seem less generic.

Remember, if you over-mark up a paper, students will absorb little of the feedback, so it is wiser to pick on the parts that you think are the most important for growth for that particular student.

You Don’t Have to Grade Everything

Shhhhhh.  Don’t tell your students, but you don’t have to grade everything.  I tried to grade every scrap of paper that students turned my first year I taught 8th grade English to about 200 students, and felt my free time and sanity quickly slipping away.  When a teacher in the classroom next door showed me her criteria for how she chooses what to grade, I learned how to prioritize my grading workload.  Final unit projects and initial diagnostics must always be assessed, but when you are in the middle of a unit, consider which assignments are most crucial to give feedback to to promote student growth.  Also, think with your parent hat (even if you don’t have children): how much feedback would you like your own child to get from their teacher?

Create a Schedule

When you are unit and lesson planning, think about which assignments will be graded, and build that into your schedule.  If you know that you will have family conflicts or external commitments within the time frame of your unit, also factor that in so you don’t increase your stress level down the line.  Remember, that if you wait too long between collecting an assignment and returning feedback, the efficacy of your comments loses power, so keep in mind what is manageable and feasible based on your own pace of grading.

Have Students Self-Assess Prior to Teacher Grading

While some teacher have students do peer evaluation, I tend to avoid it.  The few times I’ve tried it, I found that student-to-student feedback was either overly-complimentary or overly-antagonistic, and just not specific in terms of providing strong suggestions.  This is not to say that students can’t be trained to provide excellent peer feedback; I didn’t want to take the instructional time for the training process.  Instead, I have found that asking students to reflect on what they feel that did well on on a particular assignment, and where they want feedback for improvement is helpful to both me and them.  By attaching this reflection to the assignment, I can hone in on a specific growth area in addition to the rubric categories that I use to provide praise and suggestions.  

Use Positive Reinforcement and Rewards For Yourself

As much as we can use savvy time management, create comfortable work environments, and utilize work-smarter-not-harder tips, there is no avoiding the drudgery of grading.  There are a million other teacher-related activities I’d rather be doing like teaching, designing lessons, or collaborating with a peer.  In order to motivate myself, I use small rewards.  For instance, I’ll tell myself, “When you get through this next stack of papers, you can (do whatever activity you really enjoy).”  What motivates you to finish something you don’t enjoy? Time with a friend?  Flowers?

Find What works for You!

At the end of the day, grading is definitely not the most riveting part of the teaching job.  Keeping student growth and your own limits in mind should help you come up with a grading style that is manageable and works for you.

Teachers, what other grading hacks do you have?

*Made up statistic… but it sounds plausible!