Saturday, September 27, 2014

Time to Bring Some Fun Back in to the Classroom


What an amazing professional development day I had yesterday.  I mean, I've often walked away from a training and wanted to try some new things in my classroom that I've learned, but I don't think I've ever walked away wanting to COMPLETELY change the way I teach.  Well, not so much change how I want teach, but actually teach the way I want to...and know that it's OK to do so.

Yesterday's keynote speaker and whole group presenter was Steve Barkley (@stevebarkley if you want to check him out on Twitter). He's an educational consultant and teacher educator, and he's probably one of the most enjoyable education professionals I've ever listened to.  He was funny, passionate, and everything he said made so much sense.  

His focus for the day was inspiring teachers to work as a team, and to build effort and ability in students.  He bases his teachings on student behaviors and how teachers can help students grow by instilling the student behaviors in the classroom.  He explained to us that teachers don't cause student achievement, students cause student achievement.  And, if they don't have the desire to achieve their goals or if they aren't willing to put in the effort, the teacher can't make those things happen.

He did explain in great detail, however, how teachers can create student behaviors that are desirable for student achievement.  He explained how students have to fail in order to succeed.  They have to understand that improving their abilities requires a formula of effort times ability with a manageable task equals success.  He explained that students have to learn how to be independent, take responsibility for their own learning, and have a clear goal for the future and how their learning will impact that goal.  

Everything he spoke about was stuff I've been struggling with, lately.  I have struggled with students who don't give much effort, they give up easily, or they just shut down if they think they can't achieve the results I'm looking for.  I have been beating my head against a wall trying to figure out different ways to make my students put in more effort, work through stuff that they find difficult, and taking some responsibility for their learning.  And, it's been tough.  What I've realized though, is that I can't make those things happen.  There are steps I can take that may improve their desire to succeed and put in the effort, but until they decide that they want to succeed and they can overcome the obstacles put in front of them, they won't succeed.

I have always had high expectations for my students.  Always.  I have always made those expectations known, modeled what I expect, and held the students accountable for the work that they do.  I discuss effort a lot in my classroom, and we discuss how effort is just as much a part of learning as the actual learning is.  If something is hard, yet they work through as best as they can...they are putting in the effort to learn.  If something is hard, and they just give up or shut down...there is no effort and they are giving up before they even start.  Learning can't occur if there is no effort.  

It was nice to hear that holding the high expectations and being tough on the students who show little effort is OK.  It was nice to hear that there's nothing wrong with demanding more effort, and expecting it.  It was good to hear that effort is one of the most important student behaviors I should be focusing on in my classroom, and that I shouldn't give up on that expectation.

There was something that I discovered, though, that helped me realize where I'm missing the mark.  That would be in the fact that I've drained the fun out of my classroom.  My classroom isn't a fun, inspiring, challenging place to be.  It's a room filled with hum-drum lessons, drill and repeat skill practice, and pencil and paper handouts.  No wonder my kids don't have much effort or desire to succeed.  They're being fed the same ol' same ol' week in and week out, and they walk out of the classroom at the end of the day full of energy to get home and burn it off.  Where as the teachers are walking out of the building dragging their feet and fighting to stay awake.

Steve Barkley told us that it should be the opposite.  Students should leave school each day absolutely exhausted, while the teachers should leave upbeat and wide awake.  The teacher should be providing fun, challenging, creative lessons that make students put in more effort and making them learn through having fun, and wanting to learn.  I've spent too much time doing too much of the work.  I should be coming up with lessons and projects and assignments that take little effort from me to deliver, but plenty of effort on the students' parts to complete.  

One of the most inspiring parts of the day was when Steve discussed the optimal learning behaviors for student achievement.  He showed us a continuum of student behaviors seen in the classroom:  Boredom, comfort, attention, and fear.  He asked us to determine between which two behaviors the most learning took place.  Most of us agreed between comfort and attention... but we were wrong.  He explained that for students to get the most out of their learning, and really apply themselves, they had to be kept between attention and fear, with small intervals that allowed them down to the comfort level.  I was shocked, but when he explained why, it made so much sense.

Think of going to the gym.  Most people, if they want optimal success from going to the gym, will hire a trainer.  That trainer will keep the person at a point where they think they could give up, but they keep pushing themselves because the personal trainer is giving them the encouragement that they can push through the pain and succeed.  Often that is seen by a person on the verge of giving up, and the trainer then upping the intensity even more.  Making that person almost scared, thinking they're going to die, but then feeling a rush of fear that pushes them through.  Then, once the person has achieved a goal they were pushing for, the trainer lets them come down to the comfort level for a few minutes to get their breath back.  But, as soon as they really start to get comfortable, the trainer ups the intensity again and the trainee is back in that fear and attention threshold.  However, people that want to go to the gym but aren't as willing to commit to the process will go to the gym, get on a treadmill, and walk at a comfortable rate of speed and then give up when they have had enough.  That person burns some calories, but they never actually reach any form of success.

That made so much sense to me.  Rather than giving my kids work that I know they can do, I should be raising the bar and challenging them.  Making them really think, almost to the point where they could give up, but keep reassuring them that they can do it, they can figure it out, and the result is more about the effort - not the right answer.  

The same can be said about the fact that he told us many teachers are "steroid givers".  He used quite a few fitness analogies, and he told us that people who want to get big muscles but don't work out have to take steroids.  Sure, they get muscles for a while, but pretty soon everything starts to crash.  Many teachers are steroid pushers.  They give the kids the results without making them work for it, make it easier for them, and just get them through the year without thinking of what struggles they will deal with in the future.

Think about subtraction in the elementary grades.  Most kids in elementary are taught that in order to subtract, the big number ALWAYS goes on top.  That is a steroid.  Teachers are making it easier for kids to perform the subtraction problems, but aren't making them understand the problem.  The kids get in a routine where they don't even pay attention to what the problems say, they just find the biggest number and subtract it from the smaller number.  Then, a few years down the road, when the kid goes in to 6th or 7th grade, that teacher is faced with the steroids wearing off and the following crash.  Those same kids learn that the bigger number doesn't ALWAYS go on top.   

Teachers have to realize that in order for the students to be TRULY successful, and get the most out of their learning, the future has to be a part of the picture.  What will I teach today that will impact my kids tomorrow?  Am I making it easier for them to just get through it, or am I helping them think critically so that they can understand why they are doing what they do, and how it will impact them one day?

All in all, it helped open my eyes.  I realized I'm making several mistakes in my classroom that need to be fixed ASAP.  It's not the mistakes I thought, though.  Instead of backing off, I need to get tougher.  Instead of coddling my kids, I need to challenge them.  I need to let them fail, and then help them understand why they failed and strategies that can help them next time to not do the same.  And, most importantly, I need to make sure they are having fun.  Because even the hardest of material is more effort worthy when there's fun involved.  I know that I'm willing to work a lot harder when I'm having fun, so I know that my kids will too.  

Speaking of fun, I got to teach my two sessions of Minecraft yesterday.  They went great, and I even got to do a small piece for the news!! How exciting is that?  And, while teaching the Minecraft sessions, I realized that Minecraft HAS to come back in to my classroom.  I have to start using it again.  There's the fun that I had been missing, well, some of it anyway.  So, no matter what, I'm going to figure out a way to let my kids use Minecraft.  Somehow, someway.  

OK, I really need to go.  I'm taking my kids to Silver Dollar City for a much needed family fun day.  We've been looking forward to it all week, and I'm ready to have a day off with my kids.

So, have a wonderful Saturday, everyone!  I know I will.  :)


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