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Giving Learners the Right Amount of Power and Autonomy: the Middle

Students tutoring each other in ESOL club, an after school tutoring group in my class.

 

Welcome to part 2 of my power and autonomy series.

 

In the middle of a project, keep doing the same pieces of part one (inspiration, freedom/structure/boundaries, and resources).   Then add these pieces:

 

  1. A Sense of urgency/deadlines
  2. Flow
  3. The ability to get unstuck
  4. Feedback.

 

 

Here are some ideas about each of these components.

 

 

1. A sense of urgency/deadlines

 

When you start a project, anticipate how soon you think the students will be able to finish it, and then subtract a small chunk of time from that number.  That’s when it’s due.  So if you think your students need a month to finish something, give them 3 weeks instead. If you think students need 45 minutes to come up with a project, give them 30 or 35.

 

Keep a pulse on the class, their efforts, and if things change, move the due date, either up or back, depending on what your students need.  If you assign a big project, like a ten page paper, create check-in points through out the assignment. So your first four pages will be due by Friday, then the next three by next Friday, and the last three in three weeks.  When students get off task, break the project down into smaller pieces, re-direct them and set mini-deadlines.   “Ok, in twenty minutes, do you think you can have this much done? Yes? No?” Go from there. Ask them what they need and provide extra structure and support.

 

If students panic in response to an imposed deadline, re-evaluate it.  Were they adequately informed of this deadline?  Did they waste their own time?

 

Going along with this, if your students fall in love with a unit, say on Ancient Rome or simple machines, let them run with it and enjoy it for longer.  If you planned a two week unit, but they want more, give them more.   But maintain that sense of urgency.  It increases productivity, and leads to flow.

 

Conversely, if all your students don’t like learning a certain concept, see if you can tie something that they do like into it, like, perhaps Ancient Rome. And maybe move up the deadline, if you can. 🙂

 

 

2. Flow

 

 

Flow is that really satisfying feeling when you’re so engrossed in your work, that you don’t realize you’ve been working on it for the last five hours.  You don’t realize that you missed breakfast and lunch and that you haven’t looked at your phone all day, because you’re completely enjoying what you’re doing. You’re not concerned about any extrinsic rewards; you’re working because you love working.

 

 

I get into flow when when I’m reading a really great book, when I’m writing about something that I care about, when I’m playing piano, or when I’m building a project on the computer. Flow is when you get the hang of something and start churning out work. It feels so good.  I get into flow when I’m teaching and the classroom is humming; when I’m busy keeping a pulse on things and talking through different problems with different students.    I get into flow when I’m analyzing data and when I’m figuring out how to organize large amounts of items or information or thinking through how I want to build a project.

 

 

Watching someone while they are in flow, completely absorbed in their work is really satisfying too.

 

Flow is really the reason for learning.  It’s essentially love and enjoyment of learning. Gold stars, A+’s, and paychecks are nice, but they’re not as nice as flow.  When you love learning, the reward is the learning, and it feels so good!

 

 

It’s sometimes really challenging to get into flow and it requires metacognitive skills to even recognize it.  Humans generally develop more metacognitive skills as they get older, but it’s something that takes practice and awareness.

 

 

As a teacher, I think it’s really important to address this explicitly.  With younger students, you can just ask simple questions. “How does it feel to learn this?” “What do you understand?” “How does your brain feel?”

 

 

With older students, you can discuss flow explicitly.  “When was the last time you were working on something and you didn’t want to stop?”  Of course there might be some negativity, but encourage students to think differently.  Was it grocery shopping?  Reading a magazine?  Organizing your closet?  Working on your car? Reading a book about the human body? Pulling apart your computer tower?  Looking at the stats of your favorite sports team? Memorizing a piece of poetry? Unfortunately sometimes low income students haven’t had as much exposure to the bliss that can come from learning. That’s a separate blog post, but the solution is to give them that exposure, and ask them to evaluate their own excitement and engagement with different subjects.

 

 

When a student finds his flow, feed it, encourage it.  Challenge him or her to spread that same obsession to other subjects. A love for one subject can be contagious, infectious– and that’s the goal.

 

 

Finding flow is a lifelong experiment and it also has to do with your own bodily  needs.  It takes time to figure out when and how you can best get there. A lot of people have a harder time focusing right after lunch; of course fatigue affects flow. Most people  have a time of day when they feel most productive. Some people get more done when they’re horizontal. As a severe extrovert, I get into flow when I’m around lots of people and talking and listening.  I tend to get more done throughout the day if I eat protein for breakfast.

 

 

It’s good to know these things about yourself; teach students to examine those things and go with what works for them.

 

 

There is a lot of research that shows that walking and movement are very conducive to flow.  I had the chance to attend a lecture from an incredible high school Montessori science teacher this past year in Portland.  He gave his small group lessons to his students while walking around their yard and then they would return to class and write down what they remembered.  His students loved it and were able to retain more information than when they were just sitting and passively taking notes. This same teacher also encouraged his students to do science experiments on themselves. For example: one week eat a breakfast of Life cereal  and record how focused you feel at 10 am; the next week eat a breakfast of Pop tarts  and record how focused you feel at 10 am; then the next week eat a breakfast of eggs and record how focused you feel at 10 am.

 

 

The point here is that your brain is a fascinating thing to study, and the better a student can examine his or her own learning, the more likely he is to get into flow.

 

 

Traditional schooling really suffocates flow.  Our class blocks are 46 or 92 minutes or however long and if a student is doing any active learning whatsoever, it’s not likely to end the moment the bell rings.  But it doesn’t matter, they have to drop what they’re doing, clean up, and rush off to their next class.  Maybe they will forget everything they learned, but our school system doesn’t really seem to care.

 

 

Beyond the problems of top-down structure of most schools, though, we just don’t really discuss flow and enjoyment of learning.  We teach that you have to get good grades so you can go to college.  You have to go to college so you can make money.

 

 

This whole journey is much more satisfying and  effective if it comes from enjoyment. Try to get into flow every day, and explicitly encourage your students to get there too.

 

 

 

3. Getting unstuck

 

Everyone falls down or gets stuck at some point.  It’s inevitable, and sometimes it’s frustrating because it’s basically the opposite of flow.

 

A few pointers on getting students unstuck:

 

1.Get learners talking. Have them teach and explain to you or to someone else exactly what their goal is and exactly what they don’t know how to do.  This pinpoints the questions that they have.  Finding the right questions is the hardest part.

 

 

2. Isolate variables and pull things apart.  If a concept intimidates a student (or you), make it into small pieces and let them take the time they need to understand it. Is this concept really tough?  Do we need another day to practice? An important piece of this is changing expectations.  Perhaps you thought you would understand this in  five minutes, but it’s been a few days and you still don’t get it. Change your expectations and your plan and take however long you need to understand the material. If you have to study something for an extra week, study something for an extra week.  If you have to take Calculus three times, then take Calculus three times.

 

 

3. Have students take a break, get a drink of water, or take a walk outside.  If they can think about the current obstacle while they’re doing that, they might come back with a solution. If it’s spreading frustration and chaos in the whole classroom, change the energy. Give some silent work time, go play kickball outside, play heads up 7 up,  or have a classroom discussion in a circle.   Then re-address the problem with some new energy when you’re ready.

 

Most importantly, celebrate when you defeat an obstacle.  Doesn’t that feel so good?

 

 

 

4. Feedback along the way

 

Give verbal, one-on-one feedback when you can. It’s best if you can schedule a time for this. Ask lots of questions to understand and to help students plan out the structure for their next steps.  This should be an adult conversation.  Make your high expectations clear and address improvements you’d like to see.

 

Try not to do too many “Good jobs!” especially for little kids.  I know it’s tempting, but after teaching a few hundred students, I can easily spot the children whose parents never stop gushing to them, because they are constantly begging for attention and praise.  They’re the ones who always come up and want you to give them a compliment every time they do something right.  They’re the ones who are terrified of coming in last.

 

Conversely, students whose parents aren’t constantly overwhelming them with praise don’t seem to really care what the teacher thinks of them. They might be getting straight A’s or straight F’s, but who cares? They’re learning.  Maybe their teacher hates their project and maybe their mom hates their project, but they like their project, so they do their project anyway.  When these students fail, or come in last place, they don’t seem to really worry too much.  They just pick themselves up and move on.

 

 

It’s best if students are hungry for learning, and not for praise.

 

In conclusion, the requisite components of a the middle of a successful project are:

a sense of urgency, flow, tools for getting unstuck, and substantive feedback

 

Am I missing something?  What would you add?

Thanks for reading. Hope you are having a productive and flow-filled week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lighter Things: Musicals

 

Have you seen this?  If you haven’t, I dare you to watch and not feel spectacular in every way (I say spectacular as this is a spectacle).  I love Neil. I can’t get enough of him. My favorite part is just after 6:00, when he says, “Because I promise you all of us up here tonight, we were that kid!” But the whole thing is pretty darn spectacular.  Also, how did he get out of that magic case and to the back of the theater?!

 

 

 

 

 

Do you love musicals?  I do.  In college, I did a theater study abroad in London and it was the funnest semester. Our class went to twelve plays together and then wrote about and discussed them.  I fell in love with Shakespeare (although, I did have to fall back on sparknotes pretty frequently– that language is really challenging for me) and I also fell in love with musicals.  I get so excited watching them, and I have obsessed over more than a few.

 

 

 

 

 

Here are a few other musical links that consistently make my heart sing, in case you haven’t seen them:

Carpool Karaoke with Michelle Obama

My favorite scene from La La Land

Carpool Karaoke with Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

 

 

 

Also, as a not-super-important sidenote, know that there have been some fun typos and emojis added to a couple of my posts.  I make an effort to be meticulous in my writing, but evidently my password on here is not very hard to guess, and there have been some words added and taken out in a few places, ha.  Perhaps I should start watching over my blog like a hawk, but until then, just take the emojis and conspicuously missing words with a grain of salt.

 

 

 

 

Hope you are having a swell weekend!

Camp PALS

PALS Olympics /\

 

 

 

Have you heard of Camp PALS?  My little sister just got back from it and it is easily her favorite week of the year.  It’s a camp for kids with Down syndrome. They have fun activities all week long – yoga, PALS Olympics, kayaking, firework watching, karaoke, team-building, theatrics, a formal dance, friend-making, celebration.  It’s a really special week.

 

 

 

Here is a little bit of its history. (Fun fact: the founders all have siblings with Downs).  And here, here, here, here, here, and here are the videos of all the fun they had!

 

 

 

 

My favorite thing about Camp PALS is that on the last day, the campers write a letter congratulating new parents of children with Downs syndrome.  In their letters, campers tell these new parents about all the wonder and good experiences that they’ve had in their lives.  It’s an experience that’s given my little sister a lot of pride in her identity, and I think it’s helpful to parents who might be struggling in their new role.

 

 

 

 

Have you known someone with Downs?  If not, you’re missing out.  They are a great group!

 

 

 

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

 

 

 

Giving Learners the Right Amount of Power and Autonomy; the beginning

A student in my introduction to World History class, circa 2013.

I recently had a conversation about manipulating versus enabling people and I realized that I have a lot of opinions on the topic.  I’m itching to share my ideas and I hope you can draw something from them.  Here I’m addressing this in the context of education, but many of these ideas relate to other contexts as well.

 

 

 

I firmly, deeply, forever believe that you cannot control people- though bribes, through words, through coercion, through pop-up ads, etc.  You can try to trick people, you can take advantage of people, and you can certainly influence people, but you can’t actually control people.  My worst teaching moments have come when I have forgotten this; it’s easy to forget.

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, the human brain is naturally inclined to learn and improve itself and because of this, a teacher always has opportunities to guide and enable his or her students.

 

 

 

 

Enabling a student, by my definition, means giving him or her the right amount of control in the right moment.  Sometimes this means giving a student immense autonomy, sometimes this means doing a little bit of hand-holding, and sometimes this means giving some redirection or constructive criticism. You do your part to give guidance throughout the process, but you also step back and watch success, failure, or some combination of the two unfold.  Then you remember to not take it personally, whatever the outcome.  Ultimately, students control their own learning.

 

 

 

 

Here I’ll talk about three components that are important to enabling students in the beginning of a learning process.

 

 

 

 

They are:

-Inspiration

-A clear idea of the freedom and structures that they have, and what the boundaries are

-A set of tools to accomplish the given task

 

 

 

Inspiration. At the beginning of a project,  students have a significant amount of power and choices, but they often don’t know where to start or what it could lead to. When you’ve got their full attention, give your students ideas, be they youtube links, stories, guest speakers,  meaningful problems to solve, inspirational movie clips etc.  Articulate exactly what this learning opportunity is worth and what influence they could have with it.  Share your utmost positivity and enthusiasm. This could be incredible.

 

 

 

 

This is also a great moment to remind students, especially teenagers, that although you’re the teacher, they are ultimately their own teachers, and they are responsible for what they do with their time and what they learn.  They can waste their time or they can work hard and use it to solve problems, gain knowledge, become an expert.  Most importantly, they can use it to enjoy learning, and to help other people learn.

 

 

 

 

 

Remind your students that they can accomplish anything, as long as they do the required studying and work. If their goals are worthwhile, they will likely take more time than expected (I am being reminded of that in my own projects right now).

 

 

 

 

 

Define their freedom and structure and provide clear boundaries.  People love choices in their learning, but not so much freedom that they don’t know how to figure out what to do.   Give your students enough structure, feedback, and check-in points  so that they can figure out their next steps and ask questions to get unstuck. This is very nuanced and I could write a novel about  how to pick up on what sort of structure students want and need, but generally, give students enough freedom to choose a project they love and just enough structure so that they can figure out what to do.  You don’t always have to give them a clear idea of what is expected of them (because that steals their creative juices), although sometimes it’s helpful.  Again, go by what you are seeing your students doing and needing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So for example, you could tell your class, “Make a project that shows the math we’ve learned this unit.” And then show them architecture, actuary, and engineering projects that require those skills. Then outline your expectations, maybe an illustrated diagram and presentation of the steps you used to solve this problem, and a short essay on the value that your solution adds. Or you could say,  “Your project is to create an ethical business plan for this company that could make you money.” Then offer your rubric with the five categories of what you’re expecting, check-in dates, and the due date.

 

 

 

Give your students the freedom to choose to learn what they want to and enough structure so that they can figure out what to do.

 

 

 

 

Next they might come to you with a question– Is this project idea a good one? or not?  

Can I do my research project on a drug lord? 

Can I eat nine chocolate chip cookies for breakfast? 

 

 

 

 

Think through what you need to to have a logical reasonable conversation with your students about their choices.  Your discussion should be mostly questions.

 

 

 

 

For example, if a teenage student asks you to do a research project about a notorious drug lord, ask them questions about why it might or might not be appropriate.  What are the health benefits of doing drugs?  Did this drug lord influence people for good or for bad or both?  In what ways?  How? Why?

 

 

 

 

 

Or, ask your sweet-tooth student, what do you think would happen if you eat nine chocolate chip cookies for breakfast?  Good things?  Might you fart more than normal?

 

 

 

 

For every no you give, guide your students to your thinking with questions.  Know that even after you tell a student he or she cannot do an assignment (maybe about violence or something else that is gruesome/inappropriate), he or she may still do it.

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly demonstrate the tools at their disposal and how to use them.  I’ve had the chance to work at both public and private schools and I cannot tell you the difference in terms of the power of educational resources.  Computers, microscopes, books, pet rats (versus unwelcome rodents), hammers, power tools, yoga mats, food, field trips.  I struggle to think how these tools could be equally distributed, but until then, if you’ve got them, USE them.  And if you don’t have them, have your students do as much as they can to get them.  Also YOU do as much as you can to get them, but make it clear to students how much these tools are worth.  These expenses add up, and students of all socioeconomic backgrounds can take classroom resources for granted sometimes.

 

 

 

Give your students the vision, purpose and rules of these learning tools. Resources can be used to accomplish learning, or they can be used to waste time.  Only acquire resources that relate to the specific learning goals of your students because resources you don’t need can actually be a huge distraction.  Eliminate the extra and provide students with clear boundaries and agreements on how to appropriately use what you have. Students can come up with rules to guide this process. See what tweaks need to be made so that students can be successful in using tools productively.  Again, be ready to witness that fun part where I said you can’t control other people– students can be reckless and tools break.

 

 

 

If and when your students seem to need a discussion about social media/texting, have that discussion and guide it with questions.  What is the purpose of our time together? What is the purpose of the technology in our classroom?  How can we stay on topic and accomplish our goals?   Social media is a tough distraction in the classroom and a very real threat to learning.

 

 

 

These three pieces–inspiration, defined freedom and boundaries, and tools– are vital to giving students power in the beginning of a project.

 

 

 

 

Speaking abstractly, most of the learning process could be considered a beginning in some form.  If you need to step back from what you’re doing to give instruction and re-harness these pieces, do it, even if it’s not technically the beginning of the project.

 

 

 

 

At Bowman school, we learned one analogy for this is lighting a match.  In the beginning, with the right amount of pressure and control, your students often choose to light this match and start a fire that keeps them learning.

 

 

 

 

Missed opportunities

 

There are a million ways to miss the mark on this. Here are a few.

 

 

Not giving students inspiration or creative opportunities.  If your expectations are flimsy and one-dimensional, your students’ work will also very likely be flimsy and one-dimensional.  This looks like worksheets, standardized tests, lectures, and bookwork.  Sometimes this looks like students just going through the motions, giving up, or even dropping out.

 

 

Not giving students freedom and structure or explanations for your boundaries. If you’re ready to say no to most of your students’ ideas, be ready for your students to say no to learning.  The beginning is not the time for criticism or threats (although there’s never a time for threats).  Find ways to say yes.  When you do have to say no, which happens sometimes, be ready to ask questions and talk about why.  Important sidenote: you don’t have to be a pushover.  If a student chooses to break an agreement that you’ve created, you don’t have to accept their work or give them any attention.  But know that they might choose to do it anyway.

 

 

This missed opportunity looks like students who are confused, wasting time, or don’t know what to do.

Going along with this, I sincerely believe that most wasted time and failure in the classroom come from a student’s lack of understanding of how to solve the task at hand.  When students don’t use their time wisely, it’s usually not because they don’t care, it’s because they don’t know how.  Ask questions, provide support, and do what you need to do to help get your students unstuck.

 

 

 

 

Not providing the right tools at the right moment with the right use. This is the tough part, where students with money find success faster than ones without.  There are creative ways to come up with these resources and sometimes not having certain tools can be a good thing.  More often though, schools without the  books, computers, or items their students need to accomplish their learning goals are at a huge disadvantage.

 

 

It’s interesting to note, however, that this failure can also look like schools with millions of dollars of brand new computers.  T.C. Williams, down the street from the high school I taught at, received enormous amounts of funding for personal computers for each student and their test scores fell off a cliff. This pattern, unfortunately is incredibly common–schools with bucketloads of donations end up with bigger problems than the ones they started with.

Why?  Because computers and resources are often supplied without that vision of what they would accomplish or the defined freedom and boundaries that come with a privilege.  Teachers harness that vision and structure in order for resources to be successful.  With the right guidance, resources can give students the power to increase their productivity and learning exponentially.  Conversely, without that guidance, tools can  give students the power to decrease their productivity and learning exponentially.

So, as they say in Spanish, cuidado.

 

 

 

Next I’ll talk about the middle of this process and then the end of it.  Hope this finds you well. Happy July and happy learning.

 

 

 

 

The Pep talk I’ve been giving myself recently

My life is pretty great right now, but I’ve been hearing all this panic about not getting married before 30.  Did you see that article about why Kim Kardashian married Kris Humphries?  I thought that was interesting.

 

 

 

 

So here are some thoughts I’ve had on the topic of being single versus being married.  I thought I’d share it for any other single Mormon female approaching 30, or any female really.

 

 

 

 

1.There’s no shame in being single.  Being single is great and nothing to be ashamed of.  Do not get married out of desperation or fear.  Hold your head high and relish all the good things you have going for you. You have a lot.

 

 

 

 

2. Share your intellect.  I recently had a conversation with a friend and she was sharing her well-substantiated opinions on fiscal policy and politics in the last few decades.  I was enlightened and impressed.  I was also a little surprised because I’ve known her for a few years, but I’d never seen this side of her before.  I think women have a tendency to do this- hide our knowledge, expertise, or academic curiosity.

 

 

 

 

Find ways to share your learnings, not in a conceited way, but in a way that attracts opportunities and other learners.  Put yourself in places where you can both teach and learn.

 

 

 

 

In a relationship, you want someone who values your knowledge and experiences, not just your looks, fun conversational skills, or the fact that you can create babies (although these are all great things too).  Wear your brain on your sleeve; engage in thoughtful discourse.  Good things come from this.

 

 

 

 

 

3. Keep perspective.  Did you get this beaten into you at church growing up?  I totally did.  Keep an eternal perspective. Ann Romney mentioned it in her interview with the Washington Post, discussing her husband’s loss in 2012.  If you don’t get what you want, keep track of all the other things in your life now and down the road that might actually be just as important and meaningful as having a family, or whatever the thing is that you’re hoping for.

 

 

 

 

 

I hope this is helpful to you.  Last bit of advice: Make time for something fun this summer!

 

 

xx

Shanban bananfran

 

 

 

 

 

 

Describe yourself in 3 words.

Me and my niece on a roller coaster for small children.

 

 

I recently asked my brother to describe me in three words.  He said…….

 

 

 

  1. candid (“sometimes, you’re too honest”)
  2. idealistic (“not everything is black and white, Shannon”)
  3. dramatic. 😀

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure if it anyone can be summed up in three words but it’s fun to try.  What would yours be?  And would you trust your close friends to describe you accurately?

 

 

 

 

Hope you’re having a great Easter week and have some fun things to look forward to.