The WSJ, the shower, and global trade

I am more convinced than ever that I need to make time to step away from work. I used to get up at 5:00 am to be able to get work done – planning, grading, etc. This year, I have been using the hour between 5:00 and 6:00 (when I need to start getting myself and my family ready for school) to have a cup of coffee and read the Wall Street Journal.

With my PBL/Inquiry-based Modern World class, I have completed my planning for the first unit, and have begun to think about the second unit, which will begin in about two weeks. The subject matter is the development of global trade, beginning in the 16th century. I knew that I wanted to start with the Indian Ocean trade interactive map ( but beyond that I have not been able to think of the project that would come from this. The first unit, which has focused on empires and power, ends with a model for tracking power throughout the year, as empires and states rise and fall.

This morning while reading the paper, I came across a review of a book called A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World. I made a note to ask Renee to order it for the library and moved on with my morning. While I was in the shower, I had the eureka moment. The project for the second unit should be an updated version of a project we used to do (but found it took too much time in the regular curriculum) – the commodity project. Students would trace a commodity and its impact through the global economy.

Now I am excited to plan the unit, beginning with an NPR piece that shows the many steps that go into the making of a t-shirt. Then, students will identify commodities to research from the interactive map. After researching, they will put together a presentation (still thinking through the details and will probably consult with the class about what the final product should be) about their commodity. I am also thinking I will have them write something about global trade based on their own research and what they learn from the research of others.

I am so grateful for the time I have given myself to step away from work and the space that my curriculum allows.


Walking the Walk: Taking Back the Weekend

Yesterday, on Labor Day, I experienced a powerful convergence when my passion for the Great British Baking Show combined with an impulse selection at the library, and one of the key insights I gained from the CTTL Academy on Teaching and Learning I attended this summer.

I have committed to implementing many of the most effective strategies for teaching and learning that I have been thinking about since the Academy this summer. I am going to do more low to no stakes quizzes, interleave and space the material, help students make meaning out of what might seem to them random information, and talk to students about how they study. Some of it will make perfect sense to them and some of it will seem counter-intuitive. I will ask them to trust me, even as they leave the comfort of their business as usual rereading and highlighting of texts and notes. I recognize that even when presented with robust research, they may resist when interleaving seems to lead to confusion while massed learning is clear, even though the long term effects of interleaving are definitely superior.

With these ideas buzzing around my head, and not much work piled up after three days of classes, I went to the public library on Saturday to get a book that a friend recommended. I brought home a pile of books, as I usually do (several will go unread or partially unread) and started one called The Weekend Effect. It is the story of how workers fought hard over the years to earn two days a week off from work, but we have been giving those back in our always on, ever connected world. I have seen this work culture up close where vacations are not completely honored as laptops and phones can connect anywhere. There is a lot of evidence that working too much decreases productivity. It is easily a vicious cycle where it takes longer to accomplish tasks, which eats into one’s time, which increases fatigue and decreases productivity, which leads to longer hours to accomplish the same amount of work. It is true for students and it is true for teachers. Many of us are conscious about the impact on students and try to moderate our homework expectations. Yet, we treat teaching as some sort of nine-ten month gauntlet we have to run, until we get to rest over the summer. Every year I am exhausted in June, and every year I wonder if this will be the year I can no longer turn it back on in August. In other words, when will temporary burnout become permanent? Not this year, thank goodness.

What if we took the weekend back? What is we were truly rested on Monday and ready to tackle the week? What if we had more to talk about than housework and schoolwork and family schedules? We would be better teachers and we would be better role models. On Labor Day, I finished the book, jogged a few miles, ran a few errands with the kids, and baked bread for the first time (thanks to the Great British Baking Show for awakening a new passion for baking). In other words, I took care of myself and my family.

I woke up today refreshed and excited for the week. I was able to work enthusiastically and productively today. I am not sure how long I will be able to maintain my claim on my weekends, but it seems worth fighting for. I want to make this the year I give the counter-intuitive but well-supported conclusion that taking true breaks from work leads to more accomplishment in less time.

My Teaching Watershed: Five Days in July

A conference in Potomac the five days before we were heading to the beach for vacation seemed like a fine idea in March,  a terrible idea in July, and a blessing in retrospect. The Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School lived up to its name. It rocked my teaching world. My blogging journey this school year will follow my implementation of the learning from those workshop sessions as well as the reading I have done both before and since.

As I begin to dip my toes back in the planning water (after a week of dipping them in ocean water), I need to make some adjustments to my practices. Some of my instincts have sound research supporting them; others do not. Some of the practices that my students identify as helpful in their learning, are indeed helpful. In other cases, they are simply convenient and comfortable. So – in my opening blog post for the 2017-18 school year, here are some things I need to work on.

Feedback – I piloted Individual Feedback Sessions last year, which were popular with students, but perhaps not as effective in promoting learning as I had hoped. I need to do a better job in scaffolding the feedback so that as the year goes on students are doing more of the adjustments on their own based on more general feedback. Otherwise, they become good at following my directions and specific suggestions, but not necessarily better at writing. At the beginning, I need to give specific, quick feedback, but if I continue that all year I risk creating a culture of dependency that actually stunts growth. I am still thinking through how to maximize the benefits of the feedback sessions, which did promote clarity and relationships, with increasing student independence.

Reflection and metacognition – I do better with promoting reflection on the content than I do with reflection on learning. I am hoping to focus more on metacognition, helping students think more about how they approach learning. I plan to continue blogging with my students, but I might include more metacognitive prompts along with open reflections on content.

Content – While I have known that formative assessment, self-testing, spacing and interleaving are effective, I need to employ them more deliberately in my planning. In a session by Mark McDaniel, co-author of make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning, an activity we did drove home how important it is for content to have meaning for learners, rather than seeming to be random. He read a series of sentences that seemed random and then quizzed us on them. Then, he read another similar series of questions but asked us to create meaning for each one as he read them. We all did markedly better on the second set. In fact, I can still remember some of them. Similarly, having students complete “why” worksheets can significantly improve learning outcomes. That made sense. Then, what he said about spacing and interleaving being more effective block learning was less intuitive, as students appear to learn less in the short run, but actually retain more in the long run. That will take some unpacking.

I think it will be really important this year for me to be transparent with students about what I am doing and why. I may even do the activity that Mark McDaniel did with us. It is important for students to know that there is solid research informing my choices, and that what feels most comfortable and most effective may not be. They will need to trust me. Which means…

the first order of business for the year remains unchanged from any other year – getting to know my students. Relationships have one of the most significant impacts on learning – an intuitive idea that is supported by robust research.


Thematic US History: Power of Relevance

Students learn what matters to them. Sometimes they learn what matters to us, but it really sticks if it matters to them.

In the final unit of our thematic US history course, we look at economics and social class. This year I spent equal time on the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. Despite my many references to the origins of much US government power and regulation in the Progressive era, it made only a passing impression on most of them. They remembered the New Deal as a response to the Great Depression, particularly Social Security and Public Works programs (specifically relating to the individual cities they were researching) to some extent. What really captured the most attention was the segregation created by federal policy. We listened to an NPR interview with the author of The Color of Law, which was just published.  Paired with an excerpt from Not in My Neighborhood, they could see the impact of government policies reinforcing and sanctioning societal attitudes. It explained their neighborhoods to them.

With the Great Society, there was great interest. Students remarked that they had never learned about it before. I don’t necessarily think that novelty explains their investment. It was the relevance. In looking at the battles in Congress and throughout the country, they see the Great Society programs as contested ground. The proposed immigration changes directly address the changes to immigration stemming from the 1965 act. Medicare and Medicaid are front and center in the health care debate in Congress. PBS represents a significant aspect of their education to them.

There are plenty of reasons to teach students a lot of aspects of history, some of which seem urgently relevant, and others which do not. For one, we really don’t know what will be most immediate next year or the year after. At this point, given our foreign policy concerns, it looks like it would be worth spending time on the Korean War. Next year, I don’t know what will be in the headlines.

Relevance leads to stickage (to borrow a term from our meteorologists). But we can’t accurately anticipate next year’s blizzards, much less respond to them. So – we need to help students learn about what matters to them now, find other connections to their lives where possible, and trust our own expertise to sell the rest of it as best we can.

This is where thematic history has an edge – we can start with what’s most immediate, encourage questioning about the backstory and then help students connect the dots.

Thematic History: Current issues – weaving rather than leaving.

It happened again. My newsfeed has coincided with my curriculum. I opened Facebook this afternoon to see a story from NPR today about a new book detailing how New Deal policies created segregation. In class today, we looked at the question of legacy of the New Deal. Tomorrow I’ll share the NPR podcast to take our discussion deeper. Earlier in our economic and social class unit, we read a review of “Evicted,” which just won the Pulitzer Prize. Students are reading a chapter from a book about housing segregation in Baltimore tonight for homework.

In our foreign policy unit this winter, we framed our learning around the debate about nationalism vs globalism. We were able to use history as a guide to help us understand current policies.

The immigration unit was timed to begin just after Thanksgiving, so we started by looking at immigration today, and the question of the wall. We could look at history for patterns with immigration policy and opinion.

With a chronological approach, jumping around to talk about current events feels like leaving the curriculum. With themes, it is much easier to weave the threads together.

I have joked that my final exam will be a single prompt – “It’s complicated. Discuss.” If I did, I think my students would knock it out of the park.

Horoscopes, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, and EdCamp

I woke up today feeling like I wanted nothing more than to stay in my pajamas, read the paper, and have some time to myself. Then, as I was reading the paper, I read my horoscope. It said, “Make the best of an exciting situation. You can’t just bow out of some activity just because it disturbs the serenity of comfortable daily routines. Embrace the new and unusual and welcome a change of pace.”

So – I got dressed and headed out to EdCamp IS. I had planned to go back in January but then it dropped off my radar. This week, I got an email about it, saying it would be small and very laid back. Honestly, I was on the fence about it, not sure what it would be like if there were only a small number of participants. Still, I knew that some friends from other schools would be there, so that was a draw. My horoscope pushed me over the fence. I read it as telling me that I would be missing out if I didn’t go.

It was the smallest and best EdCamp experience I have had. There ended up being about ten of us. We sat around a large table, drank coffee, and talked. We talked about our takeaways from NAIS yesterday. We talked about the issues and challenges we face. We talked about how we could improve our practices. We talked about what education should be. It was engaging and inspiring! I didn’t want to leave the table to go to the bathroom because I was so afraid I would miss something. I left with ideas to take back to school on Monday. It was professional development in community. It was a structure and conversation created by the people who showed up. It was what we needed to talk about and learn from one another. It was EdCamp.


Toward a More Individualized Assessment Program

I am halfway through my first full cycle of Individual Feedback Sessions with my juniors where they come with their assigned written work completed, and I read it with them providing my feedback and evaluation in person. I have really loved it – the conversations about student work are so useful. My students are leaving with a much clearer picture of how they can improve their work, as well as what they should be celebrating in their work. I feel like I am connecting with each student more directly.

In the classroom, we have embarked on Ignite style presentation projects for the foreign policy unit. Students choose a topic in the history of American foreign policy, research it, and create a presentation where there are 20 slides timed to advance automatically after 15 seconds. I always build in class time to work on the project, so a good portion of the next two weeks will be spent with students working independently in class. This year, I decided to spread the presentations out so that there will be no more than three per day, which will allow us to follow up each presentation with a discussion rather than just moving on to the next one. Since the assignment due for the second round of feedback sessions is a rehearsal/rough draft of the presentation, I have the opportunity to spread out the projects.

Another component that I have been weaving into our course is blogging. I have assigned two blog posts so far, and we have been involved in a blogging exchange with a US history class at a school in New Jersey. As I looked through the blogs tonight, I realized that there are a number of students who did not publish a second post. The thing about blogging is that at some level, it really should be driven by the desire to reflect and share. The last thing I want is for the blog posts to be just another thing to do and check off the list. At the same time, I want students to have the experience of reflection, sharing, and engaging with others through comments and responses. In each of my two classes, the day that the students spent reading and commenting on the blogs from the other school, they were spontaneously inspired to look up and take Implicit Association Tests due to the posts that they were reading. They were motivated, curious, and thoughtfully engaged, even in the last class of the day.

In pulling these threads together – individual feedback sessions, individual project work, and blogging, I started to wonder why I need to assign due dates and topics for the blog posts. They should be able to post whenever they are motivated by an idea, the way that I do. Students should be able to pursue a topic they learn about in someone else’s blog. With the feedback sessions, I have already dispensed with the idea that assignments should be due on the same date for everyone. Individual project work allows students some autonomy over their class time. I want to have students write at least six blog posts, so that they really get a good feel for it, but why do I care when they do it? My pie in the sky dream is that blogging will become a habit more than an assignment. I know that will not be the case for all of my students. But – what if loosening my control over the content and dates of the posts does inspire a few students to become avid bloggers and a few more to actually enjoy writing the posts and engaging in conversation about their ideas? I would take it as a win.