In some classrooms, the last day before a holiday recess tends to be a time to host a class party, watch holiday videos, or do crafts. We look at this day as our last chance before a prolonged break to spend some meaningful time with students. We want our students to go into their time off with energy and excitement around learning. Today was a day full of celebration, fun, and excitement, and it packed an academic punch.  We hosted our informational museum exhibits, and the students had great experiences. Children went to work setting up their displays and materials to get ready to TEACH other students. Our second graders taught first graders all about:

  • What dogs need to live
  • How volcanoes erupt
  • Different types of tornados
  • What different baby animals eat
  • Different planets in the solar system
  • What tigers eat
  • All about baby pandas
  • How whales use their bodies to survive 
  • Different types of clouds
  • Different things dinosaurs eat
  • What damage a hurricane causes

As you read through this list you get a little glimpse of who these students are and what they really care about. The topics all belonged to them, and how they presented it to their first grade students was completely their decisions. It can be done, kids really can take control over their own learning. When we allow it we will always be amazed because we will know them even better.  We want to make the most of every single moment in school and we want it to be joyful. 

We love @Twitter because any day we can hear @VickiVintonTMAP & @KellyGToGo is a good day.

We walked our students out to the buses as holiday music played throughout the gymnasium. We will be off for two weeks. It is important to us that we keep our blog connected to students, so we will be back on January 6, 2020! In the meantime, you can find us hidden away in a corner of Panera writing. We are deep into revisions with our book, WIRE for Agency Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning. We hope you have a happy and healthy holiday. Please take some time out to renew and gear up for all the great learning ahead in 2020!

This post is dedicated to our friend and mentor, Dr. Mary Howard. She inspires us everyday to move our practices from “Good to Great”.  Mary, who believes in the potential for all children and works tirelessly to encourage us to be worthy of them.

Jenn, Mary, Jill

After years of working with very young children one thing we can say for sure is that childhood is full of complexity. Children are learning about everything. They are not just learning how to read (which is really hard to do), or how to be problem solvers in math (have you seen how math has changed?). They are also learning how to be more emotionally secure, how to be independent. Yes, in their world that may be how to ride safely on the bus, how to manage a backpack, or even how to get along with others in the lunchroom. Think about everything children learn in comparison to us adults. It’s astounding. 

So when teachers use words like our “low students” they are not honoring all who their students are and hope to be. When any student is denied access to more sophisticated work, they are being robbed of opportunities and may be missing out on important entry points into their learning process. When this happens, teachers are making assumptions and in doing so are most likely creating significant gaps that will be extremely difficult to fill. Why do some educators do this to kids?  Teachers care deeply about students so it just doesn’t make sense. Maybe they do it because students don’t meet their expectations for where they “ought” to be. Maybe they do it because they feel so much pressure to get high scores. We understand that pressure, all kinds of people analyze our data. Maybe they call kids “low” or refer to them as letters, or numbers from a misguided understanding of data and its role in school. We don’t know. One thing we do know for sure, it’s a problem, if we are discussing a child and we are not using the child’s name. 

In the end, does the answer to the question, why, really matter? What matters most is that we put a stop to it. Make a vow with us here today, I will not refer to my students as “low”. I will respect them and acknowledge all of their accomplishments and I will not let my own fear of failure get in their way.  We all have to believe in them if we are going to teach to make a positive impact. Yes, acknowledge the hard work that has to be done, but do that work by leveraging their strengths. There is always something to hold onto and celebrate. Be that teacher, the one who trusts in students’ abilities and hopes for the future.

Leaning in to observe children at work is a sacred time. We get to see the evolution of their thinking unfold, as they grow more aware of their sense of autonomy, and power.  One of the happiest moments in the classroom is when students come to know something on their own. Their facial expressions change when that blessed “Aha!” moment happens. This is when they realize they’ve learned something new.  Teachers who have a ”light touch” when it comes to delivering instruction know how to support students just enough. Read this exchange from teacher to student:

“How do I spell the word trade?” a second grade boy asks.
“Try it three ways.”  I say as I place a Post-It in front of him. 
Observation in Action
The first time he writes, t-r-ae-d – note that he knows how vowel teams work 
The second time he writes, t-r-a-d and mumbles “No, that’s not it.” – note that he understands how closed syllables typically work. 
The third time he looks at the first attempt, he looks at the second, “OH! A broad smile spreads across his face, and says as he writes it, “t-r-a-d-e!”
I say, “See, doesn’t that feel great you figured it out on your own!” He smiles and nods his head in agreement.

When teachers come into a child’s learning process with a set agenda we miss opportunities. When we pose an open ended prompt like “Try it three ways” we leave the work up to the student. It is better for the student, and for us. The student grows more confident and we get a window into their learning process.  It’s a beautiful thing to be both a teacher and a learner at the same time.

Anything we do with kids, it is our mission to embed it in authentic learning.  We want these experiences to mirror what they will do in real life. We don’t write to a prompt, we don’t read for other people’s interests, we don’t solve problems in isolation.  Instead, we write to get our work out into the world, we read to fuel our curiosity or meet our own internal needs. We often share what we read, because in the real world reading is usually a social endeavor. When we solve problems they are typically connected to some sort of real life difficulty.  Usually we don’t even solve them all on our own, we collaborate to gain more insights and perspective.

The problem with school is that sometimes if we’re not careful we forget reality when it comes to learning. We try to teach sophisticated thinking without the benefit of meaning making or lived experience. Deep learning stems from authenticity, and requires some practical or social benefit to the learner. They can’t learn deeply just because they want to please us. We’ve said this in prior posts (and our blog isn’t even that long yet) but it’s not about us, it’s about them. So how do you get to authentic deep learning? It’s all around you. It’s waiting in the library, when your typing an email, when you are walking down the hallway to lunch. Children are attempting to make meaning all day long and they want to share it with you. There are teachable moments everywhere you look, we just need to keep our minds open.

Being is Believing

What belief systems have you built up around your students? This is an important question because belief systems are very powerful things. It is our beliefs that slant our perspective and sway the action we take. Our belief systems for students are built around trust. We trust them to show us the way into their learning process.

Student Centered learning is where we want to be.

Children have a more flexible view of the world and are open to more possibilities that might stay hidden to adults. They see the world with beginner’s eyes. So what does that look like in day-to-day instruction? How do we take advantage of their unique view of things? We trust them to set their own learning goals. Your students have a sense of who they are and what they need that is independent of our assessments of them. By trusting our students to self-select their goals we are handing over the big work of learning to them. Genuine student ownership necessitates shared control. This is the part where some teachers might say, “Wait, what? That sounds risky, not sure if that will work for me.” The thing is it’s not about us; it’s about them. It’s our students’ learning process and their learning can only come to life when it holds meaning and relevance. 

The insights we garner from students’ self-selected goals give  us an opening to see the world of learning as they do. Elliot understands something about “How to Draw” books. Typically they do have a lot of steps! He is also a rule follower and that adds an interesting layer as we think about his goal. He likes order, he wants his book to look like a realistic drawing book – that’s important to him. Whereas Jose is all about action. His how-to book needs to capture the excitement of “moving people” to hook his audience. Two boys working in the same UOS with very different goals. As we observe these boys we are learning more about who they are, what is really important, and how to best meet their needs. In other words, this is (authentic) differentiated instruction made easier because students are leading the way.