Academically Optimistic? If Not, Why Not?

Optimism matters, particularly in schools.

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As it pertains to schools, what exactly does it mean to be “academically optimistic,” and do we have a choice whether a school is academically optimistic or pessimistic? How do student socioeconomics enter into the equation, and is it true when it comes to student achievement the proverbial apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? What about the rigors of school reform, Race to the Top, Common Core Learning Standards, and fragile school budgets? Why is there such variation in how teachers, administrators and school staff respond to these trying and unsettled times? Well, much can be attributed to the school environment–an environment greatly shaped by the building principal and a small cadre of teacher leaders.

Hoy, Tarter, and Hoy (2006) coined the term “Academic Optimism” to describe those schools that exude academic emphasis, efficacy, and trust within the halls, classrooms, and very fabric of their being. Such schools are…

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Cultivating Gratitude in the Classroom

Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”-Anonymous.

I’ve made a few lifestyle changes over the past year, including daily meditation using an app I found on the Internet. Frequently, a meditation will encourage the listener to focus on his or her blessings, rather than misfortunes. I must admit feeling better and more optimistic following such meditations, which made me wonder: Does teaching gratitude have a place in today’s schools? Could daily gratitude exercises change students’ brains, making them more resilient and positive? Might grateful students be less anxious than others?  I did the research, and the answers are “Yes!, Yes!, and Yes!!”.IMG_1125.jpeg

Teaching gratitude has a place in the classroom. In fact, daily gratitude exercises should be part and parcel of the P-12 curriculum. Research shows gratitude changes the brain in positive ways, and makes people happier. In a 2017 Berkeley study by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, individuals directed to write weekly gratitude letters, whether sent or not, had improved mental well-being versus those not directed to write letters. Gratitude activates the medial prefrontal cortex, increases dopamine levels, and yes, decreases stress and anxiety levels.

The human experience is such that we will forever deal with negativity bias, with discomforting experiences being more sticky than positive ones. However, educators can change students’ mindsets. We can help students feel more happy, more satisfied with themselves and others, and more willing to see challenges as opportunities rather than unfair burdens. So, yes, practice gratitude in the classroom. Write letters of thanks to others. Do daily gratitude dumps, solo, or in pairs, to start or end the day.  And see the glow that develops as gratitude takes root in your classroom.

ps. If there are ways you practice gratitude in the classroom, please share.

 

 

Are Students Excited About School?

Dear Reader, I have a confession to make: I disliked high school. A lot. A real lot. In fact, I disliked it so much I stopped going my senior year. Eventually my truancy caught up with me, and to graduate, I had to run laps in PE class, one for each day I “cut” school. It took three weeks of running before I erased the days skipped. I was marathon-ready after that experience. Perhaps you, too, disliked school? For me, it was my inattentiveness, what we’d term today as ADHD, and common family stressors. Regardless, high school was a boring, tedious experience for me and many of my friends. Are things different today?

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Data from a Pew Research report on social trends  (2018) suggests things may not be too different. For 920 teens, ages 13-17, who responded to an AmeriSpeak survey which informed the report, students’ excitement for what they studied at school was less than 50%. Girls (33%) more regularly got excited about something they learned at school than boys (21%), partly explaining why 33% of boys say they never get in daily trouble at school versus 48% for girls. Reasons for the numbers are varied, and speak to the many challenges of our complex, digital world confounded by a divided nation. What’s an educator to do given these data?

My suggestion is to practice the Three Rs: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Balancing rigor with students’ abilities is a fine dance, akin to the Goldilocks phenomena. Content can’t be too easy lest one lose student’s interest, nor too hard, sparking student anxiety and disengagement. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development captures this idea in a more scientific manner. Relevance, the second “R”, is what excites me as a former curriculum director. Taking learning standards and developing lessons and units that both match standards and motivate students is a true creativity thrill. We all know students get excited when they are doing work that interests them. Relationships, the third “R”, is honoring what drives our species. We are social beings, and thrive working in concert with others. Problem solving, debating, strategizing, celebrating, etc…are things humans like doing with one another. Let’s honor our brain’s hard-wiring for challenging, relevant work that involves others by practicing the Three R’s: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Let’s get kids excited about school. We can do this.

Brain Candy in the Classroom

Motivating and keeping students on task is one of teaching’s biggest challenges, particularly in today’s stimulus-rich tech environment. It’s not easy competing with smartphones, tablets, or computers as social media sites such as instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, etc… light up screens, tapping directly into the brain’s reward pathway.   “Likes”, right swipes, and new emojis give us a sense of satisfaction as these rewarding stimuli trigger the release of dopamine. The pleasurable sensations associated with dopamine make it true candy for the brain.

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Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter which, among other things, rewards humans for behavior necessary for survival.  Food, sex, listening to a favorite song, or accomplishing one’s goals all trigger dopamine release and teach the brain that such behaviors are good for the individual and worth repeating. Dopamine is often cited with addictions, and so it goes with such a powerful neurotransmitter.  Good or bad, the brain and body respond to dopamine.

Savvy teachers learn early designing lessons which allow frequent student success are more motivational than those with few success opportunities, and the neuroscience behind dopamine explains why such designs work. Each small success towards well-defined goals triggers a dopamine release, rewarding and motivating the student to continue their efforts. Long term projects such as papers, presentations, or other authentic projects are best designed to include measurable and achievable goals and benchmarks that motivate students through project completion. Remember that each small success rewards the student with a little dopamine rush; and that is better than any candy bowl.

 

Kovalik’s Bodybrain-Compatible Elements of Teaching

Twenty years ago I travelled to Kingman, Arizona to attend a summer institute on Highly Effective Teaching delivered by a true pioneer of brain-based teaching, Susan Kovalik.  WOW! would be an understatement for what I experienced in those five short, hot summer days. I had attended Susan’s full-day session on the topic at a National Staff Development Council conference (now Learning Forward) a year earlier, and was intrigued and eager to learn more about applying brain research principles to curriculum development and instruction. Five days at her summer institute was just right to see how such principles looked in the classroom, and transformed how I would later work with teachers and school administrators.screen-shot-2015-04-14-at-9-01-22-am

I recently learned while googling Susan Kovalik that she had “retired” for, in her words, the “fifth and final time”. She will be missed, but her remarkable work will live on. “Intelligence is a measure of experience” is one of my favorite Susan Kovalik quotes, and I faithfully identify her ten Bodybrain-Compatible Elements of Curriculum Development and Instruction when working with educators as they are truly foundational for good teaching.

Next generation standards may evolve from previous generations, as will Charlotte Danielson’s enduring Frameworks, but good curriculum and instruction take whatever standards exist and make them work for students. In Susan Kovalik’s model, the foundational Bodybrain Compatible Elements are as follows:

  • Absence of Threat and Nurturing Reflective Thinking
  • Meaningful Content
  • Being There Experiences
  • Enriched Environment
  • Adequate Time
  • Immediate Feedback
  • Movement to Enhance Learning
  • Choices
  • Collaboration
  • Mastery/Application

One could spend a semester processing and applying the elements to one’s craft, and another semester exploring the brain research supporting them.  Suffice it to say the Bodybrain Compatible Elements work.  They engage and excite students, strengthen neural pathways, develop students’ sense of self-efficacy, de-stress the classroom, and create the optimum learning environment.  Standards will come and go with our changing society, but the foundations for curriculum development and learning are brain-based and ageless. Thank you Susan Kovalik.

 

De-Stressing the Classroom

Stress is a fear of the unknown, and whether we like it or not, part of the human experience. Stress is our response to a perceived threat, and can be either good and bad, depending on how prepared we feel to tackle the threat.  Good stress readies students for performing at a high level, be it taking a test, giving an oral presentation, or working with others on a complex problem. Good stress is temporary, and alleviated through resolution of the perceived threat. Bad stress is another story, and unlike good stress, is chronic and contagious.  Bad stress lingers, eliciting anxiety and other undesirable outcomes. 

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Rational or not, a fear of the unknown can debilitate students, rendering some as learner helpless.  So what can we as educators do to reduce the “unknowns” in our classes, and lower stress levels for our students? It’s really quite simple.  Make the “unknowns” known through rubrics, essential questions, daily agendas, formative assessments, prompt feedback, affirmations, demonstrations, sharing of exemplars, etc… Clearly communicate one’s expectations, and give students ample opportunities to rethink and revise their understandings.  Offer retakes on exams, extra credit for extra work, one on one time….  

People often do their best work when deadlines loom, and we can thank stress for that. However, people can also do their worst work when deadlines loom and they have no clue for what is expected of them.  How did we manage our first years of teaching?  Our first classroom observation?  Our certification exams? We managed by preparing ourselves for the unexpected, and so it goes for students.  It’s our role as educators to remove the uncertainties in our instruction and de-stress our classrooms. To clearly communicate our expectations to students and allow them to see failure as part of the growth process. To add levity and lightness to our classrooms through humor and play. We won’t eradicate stress in the world, but we can certainly make it manageable for our students in our classrooms.

Anxiety and The Classroom Environment

Anxiety is a pervasive problem in today’s society, crossing all demographic lines.  It is as ubiquitous as the technologies that drive it, making for a complicated and worrisome world, particularly for children with their developing brains. According to a 2018 Pew Survey, 70% of teens say anxiety and depression are major problem for peers, more so than bullying, drugs, poverty,….  What’s an educator to do? How does one balance students’ social-emotional needs with the content and state assessments within their disciplines? There are no easy answers, but one tried and true approach is through the classroom environment.

Maya Angelou’s oft-cited quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” is worth heeding when attempting to reduce student anxiety. Most state teaching standards identify the classroom environment as key to effective instruction; Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, recognizes The Classroom Environment as one of four key teaching domains; and “Environment” is found across the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Setting the appropriate classroom environment is a logical, highly effective way to reduce student anxiety.

Building a culture of trust in the classroom is key to creating a positive learning environment.  Other ways include promoting respect and rapport between and amongst students and teachers; getting to know one’s students and their parents; making time for play and laughter in the classroom; organizing physical space so students work together at tables or centers; honoring the brain’s working memory limits through smart planning and preparation; and showing love, forgiveness, and compassion. There are so many ways to create a positive classroom environment, each of which helps lower student anxiety and promote social-emotional well being. Anxiety is something society may be stuck with, but teachers can do their part to reduce students’ troubled minds when in school.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Finding a Job Coach

What had I gotten myself into? Weeks before school started, the unorthodox teacher knew he needed help both from above and in the trenches. A growing sense of anxiety gnawed at his lack of teaching skills, knowledge, and experience. He had a Master’s Degree, but in Oceanography, not Education. His exposure to teaching was what he received as a student, and that didn’t always conjure up good memories. No, he needed a mentor, a confidant, a friend. Someone who would warn him of the common pitfalls new teachers make. A person who would happily share best ideas and practices, and be a phone call away to look over lesson plans or anything else used in the classroom. A master tactician who knew how to keep a potentially rambunctious group engaged, while maintaining good relations with parents. With but one week till classes at St. Mary’s Academy started, the unorthodox teacher had not found that much-needed mentor, and his sense of dread was approaching a calamitous level. And then he met Al.Screen Shot 2017-06-24 at 7.54.41 AM

Al was an older guy I met on the Saratoga Springs YMCA racquetball court. New to the area, and in my first week of school, I was hanging out at the courts hoping to find a game. In no time, I was invited to play doubles, and Al was my partner. I don’t remember whether we won or lost the game, but I knew I’d won a friend and mentor that afternoon when Al asked what I did for a living. Al was a veteran Advanced French teacher with 30+ years experience, and I felt a virtual arm drape across my shoulders when I told him I was a new teacher in my first week of teaching. Though 30+ years had elapsed since Al first started teaching, he understood my situation. Al and I would continue playing racquetball together, but we spent more time talking teaching. He was my lifeline. My mentor. My friend and confidant. He told me how to get students engaged in the lesson. The importance of having fun in class. Why relationships matter. How poor kids sometimes are disadvantaged. That not all students learn the same way. To forgive yourself for mistakes. To be honest and admit when you don’t know the answers. To play games embedded with content. To not take things students say or do personal. To enjoy the greatest career in the world.

Reflecting back 30 years, I remember my first mentor as if it were yesterday. The relationship and trust that developed between Al and me were indelible, and though I would find other mentors over the years, none were as that first new teacher-mentor experience. I would become a mentor myself, and do my best to cultivate what Al and I had. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) would eventually offer grant monies for districts to create mentor programs, responding to the tragically high attrition rate in teaching. I would participate as a professional developer in many of the NYSED funded mentoring programs, and would come to find the most successful programs were those that focused on relationships, trust, and coaching.  Programs that focused on finding the right mentor. A mentor skilled in his or her craft, and who cared deeply about students, colleagues, and learning. One who would become the trustworthy confidant a new teacher could lean on.  Al was such a person.

My Brain Won’t Write What I Think

My brain won’t write what I think.”, Alex said to me at our first counseling session.  The 4th grade boy did well with math in school and was a good reader, but struggled with writing tasks, particularly those in social studies. His class was learning how to answer Data Based Questions (DBQ’s), a form of constructed response question students would face on state assessments starting at 4th grade.  The stakes were high, and his teacher felt Alex ‘could do it’ based on his class participation and his oral responses in discussion with her.  She would work with him discussing the questions, and he would come up with great answers orally.  She would move on to help other kids telling him, ‘Ok just write down what we talked about’. Ten minutes later, he would have but one sentence written, often a simple rephrasing of the question.  She assumed he was goofing off. Instead, Alex struggled with linguistic intelligence. Hearing and writing might be wired together for most of us, but not for Alex.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 8.58.52 AMHoward Gardner’s 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, described intelligence as a composite of eight intelligences: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Alex’s brain simply didn’t work like other kids’ when it came to writing, or verbal-linguistic intelligence, and he was as frustrated as his parents and teachers. Alex was motivated, social with classmates, and hardworking, but just couldn’t put the words and sentences in his mind on paper.

Alex required targeted interventions to strengthen the neural pathways associated with writing. Much like a muscle when exercised regularly, Alex’s brain required specific exercises that would make writing more automatic and seamless, consuming less valuable working memory and energy in the process. The boy also needed a safe environment free of stress or anxiety associated with writing tasks. It is the system activation or arousal which humans experiences as stress and/or anxiety that impairs the ability to focus on the task – in Alex’s case, writing. For children, and adults, the outcome is task avoidance. Hence the ‘he won’t try’ refrain or blaming the victim for doing what the brain tells you to do in anxiety provoking situations – get the hell out of there.

Fortunately for Alex, he had a caring and able teacher, loving parents, and a competent psychologist. His teacher collected data to document his needs, his parents supported their son and the school through the entire process of remediation, and his psychologist understood Gardner’s theory and the deleterious impacts of stress on brain plasticity and neural pathway development. The supportive environment provided in school and home helped Alex process his unique challenges that could otherwise have spiraled into a full-blown fight or flight case of learner helplessness. Alex would become more proficient at DBQ’s and writing, though his strengths would remain in math and other academic areas. Over time, his writing would no longer be problematic as his other intelligences thrived.

 

Reference:

  • Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

 

Professional Teaching Standards To Live By

Don’t smile till after Thanksgiving.”, “Turn the lights off if the kids get out of control.”, and “The text book publisher’s teacher’s guide has everything you need.” were but a few of the many suggestions the Unorthodox Teacher received from peers and veterans during his first few months (and years) of teaching. Though he had a state syllabus to guide him on the required content of his classes, he lacked the pedagogical frameworks that would shed light on best practices. In 1987, things fortunately changed with the founding of The National Board for Professional Standards (NBPTS).  And even though Madeline Hunter was doing significant work around Effective Teaching Models, and despite Charlotte Danielson’s release of her Frameworks for Effective Teaching a decade later, the Unorthodox Teacher would identify the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as having the greatest impact on his pedagogy and practice.

For those unfamiliar with NBPTS, there are two must-read cornerstone NBPTS products: The Five Core Propositions and The Architecture of Accomplished Teaching. I discovered both in the late 1990s when asked to help a cohort of North Country Teachers pursue National Board Certification, and though I myself moved into administration before I could pursue Board Certification, I did enjoy helping others achieve Certification. The five core propositions are as follows:

  1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning.
  2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning.
  4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
  5. Teachers are members of learning communities.

And the Architecture of teaching shows the helical blueprint (think DNA) structure underlying quality teaching:

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Each state may have its own set of teaching standards and certification protocols, but like the Medical profession, National Boards are the linchpin for the teaching profession. For novice teachers or veterans, the Five Core Propositions and Architecture for Accomplished Teaching encapsulate the essence of our profession. For the Unorthodox Teacher, NBPTS clarified standards for best practice to the benefit of his students.