Leveraging Personal Learner Profiles

By the midpoint of first quarter, teachers are in tune with their new group of learners. They note tendencies and behaviors. They design instruction around interests. Teachers’ precise radars sense something off when a student acts out of character. Special relationships with an unspoken language develop throughout the school year. Teachers notice because they care.

Despite the established rapport, not all learners enjoy the same experience. What students project on the surface is often misleading—a protective camouflage for school survival. How well do we really know each learner? There are pages missing from the entire story. While respecting the personal background of every student, how can we make better use of what we know? Continue reading

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To Coach. To Teach.

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For two decades, I have enjoyed the honor of coaching varsity baseball and teaching high school communication arts courses. As I continue to grow in both roles, I recognize the influence coaching and teaching have had on each other in shaping my craft. Although I provide instruction in both positions, I prefer that students consider me their coach—a lead learner who wears the same uniform and is committed to a common purpose—dedicated to create opportunities, plan practice, support, adjust, guide, and root for every learner’s success. I want my learners to play with the content. Challenge their abilities. Learn to persist. Create meaningful outcomes. Celebrate victories. Enjoy a rewarding experience.

Great teachers possess characteristics of the most effective coaches. They are selfless, compassionate, and dedicated to help learners grow. Unlike most jobs, coaching and teaching become a lifestyle with a special responsibility and commitment to serve others. The distinguishing quality of a coach is through the actions taken to educate—the impact and connotation of its verb form: “to coach.”

Effective coaches combine their passion for the game with a keen sense of knowing their personnel: they learn the strengths and struggles of individuals; they understand how to motivate each player; they make sure everyone understands their role in the team’s success; they design a plan to give individuals paths for improvement and provide the team with its greatest opportunity for success. Coaches offer advice or make suggestions for improvement, then provide (even prioritize) the time for practice—a period of adjustment, reinforcement, support, and celebration. Players need time to learn, to increase mental confidence and work through mechanical flaws. They must experience failure, be challenged beyond personal expectations, and feel success in their growth process. How would a similar approach impact our students in the classroom? Continue reading

10 Ways Music Makes Your Class Rock

Looking for an easy way to connect with students early in the school year and a fascinating cultural study? Initiate a conversation about music—best concert of the summer, new artists to watch, last song heard before school. When students have earbuds in, ask what song is playing. Every year, my students learn to have their favorite playlists available for reference (and should be added to their list of school supplies). Pop culture references to song titles, artists, and music lyrics are common in lessons. Favorite brain breaks involve students sharing what song they will play at their next opportunity to plug in. Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes, and YouTube are some of the most used apps in room A15. Is this class led by a teacher or a DJ?

When Joy Kirr, author of Shift This (CH4: Learning Environment) asked, “How can I incorporate music into my lessons?” I could not resist creating a list of my favorite uses of music in the classroom. Tune in for ten ways to make your classes rock! Continue reading

Welcome to Durstopia!

The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?

In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.

Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.

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Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.

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So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?

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With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.

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The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
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Varsity: From Letter Grades to Letter Winners

As another baseball season concludes, I reflect on our team highlights and individual heroics that will become hometown lore, and inevitably, relive several “what-if?” scenarios, as if we could go back and choose new outcomes. I taste the bittersweet reality of saying good-bye to our seniors, while the renewed hope of next year’s potential emerges. I will miss our graduates, but would start a new season tomorrow knowing I have another chance to work with our returning letter winners. This is the annual cycle of emotions experienced by high school varsity coaches.

Since shifting to a personalized learning model in my high school English classes, I have experienced similar feelings. The more we invest in the individual, the more we get to know our learners–interests, strengths, academic needs, areas of improvement, learner preferences, future plans–and the more personal the relationship grows. While there are more technical definitions, that’s how I identify personalized learning.

Educators know the feelings. Satisfaction. Exhaustion. Fulfillment. Pride. Seasonal allergies are not solely to blame for end-of-year watery eyes as teachers wish their kids a final “have a nice summer” sentiment. There is an emptiness–a sense of loss–knowing the time has come for our students to move on. We’ve done our part, but now we must watch them become someone else’s responsibility. All of the progress, conversations, and feedback exchanged between teachers and learners reset; the learning process starts over next year.

So what do we do? Post a letter grade. Auto-fill several comments. At best, rush to write something nice in students’ yearbooks. And then, they are gone. The classroom is silent until a new group enters.

In my reflections this summer, I question how we end each school year. I question myself.

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Homework Questions: In Search of the Answer Key

Every hour of the school day, a number of students hustle into my classroom, focused, and eager to get to work. Before the bell rings to indicate the start of my class, students are already invested in their studies. Backpacks are open, paperwork out, and pencils urgently filling in blanks. I don’t even have to provide motivation or verbal cues. My students are great kids. They seek approval from parents and teachers. They have positive intentions toward success and a sincere desire to please.

What’s my secret? Continue reading

Hitting My STRIDE: 2016 Reflections

In 2016, I will continue to “walk or run with long, decisive steps” at a “good or regular rate of progress” toward my aspirations. I will stride.

The greater distance we travel, the more strides we take, the more highs and lows we face. When I encounter hills and other obstacles, I will stride with perseverance to maintain momentum. We all need inspiration to persist, but for educators, the reminders are ever present in the students we impact every day. Keeping the focus on their individual needs requires acting with empathy and compassion. Students rely on our consistent message, positive attitude, and unwavering support.

In times of stress and conflict, I will stride with resilience to overcome negativity and turmoil. The important lesson–simple runner’s logic–applies to building relationships, parenting, and educating: be patient, remain calm, control breathing, and monitor heart rate. Take life in stride.

–excerpt taken from my 2016 One Word post: STRIDE

To hit one’s stride means showing improvement in the way something is developing–to pick up the pace with ease and confidence.

So, that is exactly how I approached 2016. I took the training advice of top runners: “have fun with it, and try something new.” In class, my learners and I improved our model of personalized learning, approached every day with crazy #tlap passion and an Innovator’s Mindset, created our own genius, leveled up with #xplap gamification, captured learning with #booksnaps, and shared our work in true #ditchbook style.
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