How to Talk to Parents (Reblog)

This is a reblog of a post that I wrote earlier this year, but I thought it might be fitting to repeat since many of us are beginning new school years.

This morning, Edutopia published my post, “New Teachers: How to Talk to Parents.”  I feel uncomfortable giving advice on anything because I certainly don’t consider myself an expert.  Even after 26 years of teaching, I know that I have a lot to learn.  But I have a few Oprah-ish, What-I-Know-For-Sure truths that I have collected throughout my career – and I can tell you that I Know For Sure that developing a positive relationship with the parents of my students goes a long way toward developing a positive relationship with the students.

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image from Innovation_School on FlickrInnovation_School on Flickr

How to Stop Giving Meaningless Homework

It was about this time last year when I gave my opinion about homework.  To summarize briefly, I think that many homework assignments are a waste of time for the student, teacher, and parents.  I feel that it’s okay for me to criticize homework because I’ve seen it from all three sides.  I used to feel righteous as a teacher when I assigned homework to my 5th graders, but I now realize that a little self-reflection would have shown me that it did not in any way improve the learning success of my students.  If anything, it created more friction in my classroom as I became increasingly frustrated with students who repeatedly didn’t complete it – and my students became increasingly frustrated with my inexplicable need for them to live up to my controlling expectations.  As this article states, homework in elementary school has been shown to have no positive impact, but can very well contribute to negative attitudes toward school.

Many top educators, such as Alice Keeler (co-author of Ditch That Homework, along with Matt Miller), and Pernille Ripp, advocate for eliminating homework.  I have been seeing more and more articles like this one from the Huffington Post about teachers, and even entire school districts, who have determined that they will no longer assign homework. It’s becoming apparent that the appeal of homework is shrinking, particularly for those who want to reform education in a way that is more student-centered and relevant.

I don’t like extremes, so I imagine that if we eliminate homework altogether the pendulum will eventually swing in the other direction.  My feeling is that, if you are going to give homework, please make it meaningful.  Consider the different abilities of your students, the different ways they spend their time after school, and the different levels of support they receive at home.

I know many of the reasons that I used to give for the “necessity” of homework, so I made an infographic to help those of you who find it difficult to let go.  As you think about what is best for your students this school year, I hope that you will consider spending more time on finding ways to connect with your students and advance their learning than on chasing after incomplete work.

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DreamBingo

The mission at DreamWakers.org is to connect students in 4th-12th grades who attend high-risk schools with professionals from various industries through video conferencing. In this way, low-income students can learn about career opportunities they might never conceive due to lack of exposure.  They can also speak with role models who give practical advice on how to achieve their goals.  You can learn more about applying for a “flashchat” through DreamWakers here.

DreamWakers recently made one of their popular resources available to all educators. Designed in collaboration with The Institute of Play, DreamBingo reinforces themes that DreamWakers identified as the “life skills” needed to navigate the challenges of pursuing desired careers.  (Some examples are: learn to network, stay organized, and be an informed citizen.) After going over the glossary of  these “DreamThemes,” a teacher can then use the Google Slides presentation included in the free materials to lead student pairs through playing Bingo as they try to identify the skills shown in video clips during the presentation.  Students respond on printable Score Cards after each round of the game, giving them a chance to reflect on how the themes are used by the speakers as well as how they can connect them to their own lives and those of their peers.

DreamBingo can be a a great way to engage and inspire your students.  By highlighting the “DreamThemes” referred to by these diverse role models, teachers can bring relevance to the classroom and open up the minds of their students to new possibilities.

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Screenshot of DreamBingo card from DreamWakers.org

 

Week of Inspirational Math #3

Earlier this summer I wrote about an inspiring session at ISTE co-presented by Jo Boaler and Alice Keeler. Boaler is dedicated to spreading the word that anyone can be a math person as long as you have a growth mindset and appropriate learning opportunities.  As a Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford, Jo Boaler co-founded youcubed.org, and has presented a new “Week of Inspirational Math” curriculum on the site annually for free for the last two years.  Week 3 has just been published on the site, and is ready for educators from K-12 to use.  Having used the Week 1 and Week 2 curriculums in the past, I would highly recommend that you begin your school year with one or all three of these sets of math lessons.  The activities are broken down into grade-level strands, so there is no need to fear that your Kindergarten children will be asked to solve high school equations. 🙂

This year’s lesson include videos, PDF’s, and even access to a program called “Polyup,” which you can learn more about here.

I have personally witnessed students who believe they are “bad at math” be successful with these activities and become excited about doing more.  Those who have had negative experiences learning math can turn these around with thoughtful conversation and the passion of a teacher who believes in them.   Put Week 3 of “Week of Inspirational Math” into your beginning of the year lesson plans, and watch as your students learn to love math!

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image from Clement.sim on Flickr

Make No Mistake About It

I’ve become a bit concerned with how the word “failure” has been flung around lately – as though it is something we should strive for and flaunt.  I understand the sentiment behind this – growth mindset, stepping outside our comfort zone, taking risks, etc…  But “failure” will never have anything but a negative connotation to me.  To me, it is synonymous with “loser” or “quitter,” and features prominently in the speech of bullies.

What I do want my students to understand is that they shouldn’t be so afraid of making mistakes that they become fearful of attempting new adventures.  I am careful with how I speak about this in class, though.  I don’t want students to feel like mistakes are a goal; they are simply a possible by-product of learning. (Notice that I say “possible,” not “necessary.”  Learning can happen without mistakes in many circumstances – so I think it is wrong to tell students mistakes are required in order to learn.)

The truth is that not all mistakes are equally valuable.  There are different types of mistakes as well as different types of reactions, and I want my students to understand that. That’s why I was really excited when I came across this article from “Mindset Works”.  It includes this great visual that I think really explains the classification of mistakes.

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As you can see, the potential for learning exists in all mistakes, but “sloppy mistakes” (what I usually call “careless mistakes”) are probably not going to yield as much benefit as “stretch mistakes”.  According to the article, “Stretch mistakes happen when we’re working to expand our current abilities. We’re not trying to make these mistakes in that we’re not trying to do something incorrectly, but instead, we’re trying to do something that is beyond what we already can do without help, so we’re bound to make some errors.”

So, as we teach our students about growth mindset and the “Power of Yet,” I think it is important that we avoid glorifying failure.  Instead, we should help our students to understand that, though they shouldn’t be steering straight for mistakes, they should recognize the types of mistakes and always reflect on lessons that can be learned.

You Matter – With Aurasmatazz (The Sequel)

About 4 years ago, I had one of those crazy-ideas-that-sounds-good-because-you-haven’t-really-thought-through-all-of-the-obstacles.  In a nutshell, I invited the parents of my students (I teach a GT pull-out program, K-5) to send in videos of themselves telling their children how much they matter to them.  I used Aurasma Studio to create augmented reality experiences so that whenever the students scanned their parents’ pictures in their folders, they would see and hear the video of encouragement and love.

The project turned out to be much harder than I expected, but the results were good. The students were surprised and excited, and I learned a lot more about them and their families through the videos that I received.  However, by the end of the year the novelty was gone and I suspected most of the printed parent pictures needed to trigger the videos got thrown away with all of the other school supplies that were zealously surrendered in order to make room for summer fun.  In my mind, the “You Matter” Augmented Reality Project was something I was grateful I had done but would probably never choose to do again.

Flash forward to last school year.  One of my 5th grade students lost his mother in a tragic accident that stunned the whole community.  In the usual way that we try to comfort people who have suffered such a loss, I attended the rosary and told my student that I would be “there for you.”  I felt more useless than I ever have in my teaching career.

But then I remembered that this young man was in my class years ago when I did the “You Matter” project.  I went home and searched my Aurasma account for his mother’s video.  It had been one of my “obstacles” at one point because she was late with the video and then wasn’t sure how to send it to me.   But it eventually arrived.  And, years later, it was still stored in my account.

I downloaded the video to a USB drive.  A few weeks later, I called the student to my room, and explained to him what was in the envelope I was giving him.  I told him that he may not be ready to watch it now, but that it would be there for him when he needed to remember how much his mother loved him.  He took the envelope from me, smiled through his tears, and walked away.

He may never watch the video.  He may lose the USB drive or delay watching it until USB drives are obsolete (but that’s okay, because I have several different backups now!) . But instead of voicing hollow platitudes I was able to genuinely express how much he mattered to me by making a small effort to remind him how much he mattered to his mother.

A few lessons learned from this experience:

  • Never expect that people “just know” they matter.  What you say to them and how you treat them are equally important.
  • Educators (and parents) often don’t see the positive effects of our actions.  We should never regret the efforts we put into something that seemingly did not have the results we expected – as long as we know we were trying to do what is best for kids.
  • Time developing relationships is never wasted time.

As the beginning of the school year approaches for many of us, I urge you to do all that you can to let students know that they matter to you.  Not so test scores will improve or behavior issues will decrease.  But because:

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Me – The User Manual

Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant), other of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, tweeted a link this LinkedIn article by Abby Falik today, “Leaders Need User Manuals – and What I Learned By Writing Mine.”

In the article, Falik includes her own User Manual, which includes these headings:

  • My Style
  • What I Value
  • What I Don’t Have Patience For
  • How Best to Communicate with Me
  • How to Help Me
  • What People Misunderstand About Me

As soon as I read the article, I immediately saw applications for education.  Not only would it be valuable to have this information about the administrators we work with, but also our colleagues and students.  Because many of us are about to begin a new school year, I challenge you to create your own User Manual to share with your students and/or colleagues.  Even better, consider this as an alternative to the usual ice-breakers we assign students to give them the opportunity to make their own user manuals after you share yours.  This could really work for any grade level with adaptations.  Kinder students could do a few of the sections with some rephrasing, (What is important to you?) and by answering with pictures.  Older students could use a program like Canva.com to create a User Manual/Infographic (see my example below).  Could your students who love programming write one in code?  As you can see, there are many ways this could be adapted for different uses.  The most important thing to keep in mind is how it can help us to learn more about ourselves and the people we interact with on a regular basis.

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Great Minds Don't Think Alike!

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