Access, Training, Encouragement

Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.

Make them thirst, offer water.

Welcome to On Teaching.  If you’re brand new, we are trying to motivate much-needed changes in education from within.  This is about challenging yourself to become the best teacher you can be.  In doing so, we hope that you bring along as many other teachers as possible.

If you’re not new, and still with us, thank you!  I hope you’ve gotten something meaningful from these discussions.  By now you can tell, without doubt, that I do not have the answers.  I’m throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.  It is through dialogue and discourse that we all will arrive at a place where we’re better teachers.  But, what that means is largely relative and will be as varied as people are.  It is with this belief in mind that this project begins here, with teachers, instead of with administrators and politicians.  They want to compress all nuance, create a repeatable experience where teachers are interchangeable.  I won’t explore that sentiment further because it looks down not up.  That is, it focuses on a problem, not the desired direction.

Anyway, if something here resonates with you, I’d like to encourage you to get involved.  There are a few ways, podcast, YouTube, blog, and FaceBook group.  On the FaceBook group, we discuss big ideas, origin stories, and things like that.  This week’s conversation is about influences.  Who influenced you to consider becoming a teacher?  What strength of yours is reflective of that person?  How does that strength impact students in a positive way? 

Let’s get down to business here.  Today we will discuss the fifth foundational element of quality teaching.  Once you have your purpose, and activities align with the purpose, and you have a class-wide goal and grades aligned with the purpose that likely are included in the goal, it’s time to start equipping students with the tools needed to be successful. 

This is about coaching students to be creative problem-solvers (in solving the problem of being a good student), resourceful people, and reflective, resilient, determined goal seekers.  The conversation today will involve homework, practice work, and assessments, but they are just a component, not the focus.

The first thing that needs to be in place is that students must-have materials to use as practice and reference.  One great resource students have is their notes.  However, they have to be quality notes, which we’ll discuss later.  That aside, finding materials might be a simple problem to solve for some, but for many others, this is a serious problem.  It would seem that in the information age that finding reference materials is easy, and it is … perhaps too easy!

Maybe your textbook is sufficient.  If so, you’re very lucky.  Keep in mind, just because you like the textbook doesn’t mean that it is good.  It’s just familiar.  It’s probably similar to some comfort food you enjoy, especially if it is culturally specific.  You get used to it, it is familiar.  But, to someone unfamiliar, it might be too much to process!  As such, a variety of sources made available to students is probably the best practice here.

Before we go further, don’t think you’re 100% on the hook for locating all of the resources students need.  They can be resourceful themselves.  I mean, after all, Uncle Google is used all of the time by procrastinating students to help them write essays, to look up answers, and so on.  If that resourcefulness is used to challenge understanding, which ultimately promotes learning, it is wonderful!

What students need is something similar to a course expectations list.  “Here’s what you need to know in this class.  Here’s what you have to do with your knowledge.  Here’s how you’re going to demonstrate your knowledge and problem-solving skills.”

That almost sounds like the set of Common Core Standards … but I assure you, it is not.  If someone needs to be trained on how to navigate the document, it should, in my humble opinion, find the nearest circle file!  Concise is beautiful, my friends.

If you don’t have something like a course expectations list (which isn’t discussing rules and procedures, but the academic side of things), it might be a good idea to jot one down off of the top of your head.  Then look at resources at your disposal like curriculum calendars and such. 

From that, create a general map for students.  From that map, perhaps you can provide resources for some of the more common sticking points, things students find troublesome. 

One benefit of teaching students remotely is that I developed such a thing.  It’s just a spreadsheet with a few columns.  One column is the title of the topic and another column holds resources that I found for them to make use of at home.  (Other columns are relative to distance learning only, like the date, the exact assignment, answer key if appropriate, videos made to review, and so on.)   If, after a test or quiz, a student struggled with some prerequisite portion, I request that they review the resources and then report back to me.  If they’re good to go, great.  If not, then I work with them independently. 

That brings us to the second point, after access, which is training and encouraging.  If students don’t know how to engage independently, or in small self-selected groups, the benefits of access to information will not be realized.

The other night I was watching YouTube videos and there was an interview with Peyton Manning.  He’s charismatic and funny, so I tuned in.  In the video, he was talking about work ethic and preparation.  He made an interesting comment about professional quarterbacks.  He said they all watch film and study, but the good ones take notes and write down things they’ve learned!  He went on to say that it is the young, inexperienced quarterbacks that often fail to properly engage with watching film.

Watching game film, for a quarterback, is studying.  Studying reinforces understanding by rehearsing it, challenging it, but also uncovers gaps and misconceptions.  When discovering a gap or misconception, further steps beyond taking notes are required.  Let’s get into that.

Without looking down on this issue, students, teachers, and parents, all assume the teacher is responsible for learning.  That dynamic must be changed for meaningful change to occur.  This is one way in which change can be instigated.

Typically, when a student fails to perform well on an assessment, the focus is on what was missed, and then the teacher takes steps, usually involving active engagement of the teacher, to remedy that situation.

I’d like to encourage you to try a new approach. Instead of identifying, for the student, what they missed, put it on them.  Ask them what they missed.  Ask them what they could have done better so they would have performed better on the assessment.  “Why did you miss that?”  This conversation begins to put the responsibility for learning on the student and makes the teacher a guide and coach.  Not only that, it builds towards a future where students improve. 

Among other things, this type of conversation also changes the engagement from outcome-focused to student-focused!  We aren’t just dealing with them because they failed to spit out the right answers, we are helping them look at their behaviors, focus, drive, organization … whatever else might hamper performance in a way that puts the student in the driver’s seat.

One thing students typically don’t do at all, and if they do it is done poorly, is study.  First, they don’t know how, and second, they probably have never really had to.  There’s a lot of pressure on teachers to produce good grades, and those high grades often are used to validate quality performance by the teacher!  Who doesn’t appreciate a little extra love?  Good grades bring just that!

Let’s first reframe how we view studying.  Studying is not just done during a study session.  Studying can happen passively, like when something in the back of your mind rises to the surface for consideration.  But it also is (or should be) done when performing assignments and sitting in class. 

Studying begins with student engagement in class and note-taking.  Notes are for review, for the student.  When students are taking notes in class, they’re writing notes to themselves for future reading.  As such, the notes should not look like a textbook.  In notes, a couple of things must exist, mistakes and annotations regarding those mistakes.  There should be a lot of questions written by the student, as well as observations and conjectures.  Notes should be taken on homework assignments, and returned assessments as well!

One piece of advice that resonates with students is to write questions in their notes when they’re doing homework or reviewing their notes before an assessment.  Use a sticky note to mark the spot of the note.  When a question is resolved, the resolution is recorded in the space next to the question and the sticky note is removed.  The question and response are highlighted for future reference.  A student has done a good job when all of the sticky notes are removed from their notebook before the assessment.

The next piece of advice I learned from my youngest daughter.  When she was a Freshmen in high school she took a college preparatory class.  Leading up to the end of course examination she realized that she wasn’t where she wanted to be.  To prepare, she developed the following.

  1. With sufficient time before the test, the student creates a study guide.  It begins with a list of what has been covered in class. 
    1. The student goes through each item and rates themselves on that item.  If they’re good to go with the topic, maybe just a small amount of dispersed practice to hone their skills is required.  If they’re iffy, they need to do some digging, and if they’re in bad shape, some heavy lifting is required. 
    1. On the iffy items and those that are worse, they crack the textbook, search the internet, review their notes, collaborate with friends and classmates, and ask their teacher questions.  (A question is not, I don’t get it.)
  2. Once those areas of weakness are improved, the student creates a practice test from past homework assignments, examples in class, and old quizzes and tests. 
    1. The student then takes the practice test under test conditions.
      1. This is key!  Tests are uncomfortable, especially once the student is confused.  Dealing with those feelings is a key skill that can be developed with practice.  So, no notes, breaks, or reviewing answers ahead of time.

One amazing resource that is rarely used by students is their old assessments.  It is common practice to have students do quiz corrections.  I believe this is slightly off the mark of what needs to happen.  Before students begin diving into quiz corrections, they should identify what mechanism or behavior contributed to their struggle.  Where could they improve?  Was it test-taking strategies, did they rush?  Or was the root of their struggle bigger, did they not understand the concepts?  Students should annotate these observations on their quizzes.  And for those issues that are deeper, not just procedural or a matter of being a better test taker, they need a to-do list.  This can be marked with a sticky note, as was used with note-taking.  When the work is done, they can remove the sticky note.

Let’s pull all of this together.  The reason I chose the words training and encouragement in the title is because we are training students to be better students, and encouraging them to take the risk required to learn these students-skills.

Here’s an example.  Recently a student approached me after a test.  She properly identified which topic gave her trouble and asked for help.  In short, I gave her a video to watch and asked her to report back to me.  But, how that conversation takes place is important.  All too often students believe that if they follow the letter of the law, they do just what the teacher said, they’ll be rewarded with positive outcomes.  The reality is, the spirit of the law is what’s important, especially when trying to help young people better understand themselves and their strengths and weaknesses.

That is why it is important to explain your intentions and desired outcomes.  So instead of just saying, “Hey, read this section in the book,” explain what you hope will happen.  In the case of this student recently asking for help, I told her that I believed she had about 85% of the concept solid, but I wasn’t 100% sure where she went wrong.  I could ask her a litany of questions to figure it out and then explain it, or I could help her to self-diagnose and auto-correct. 

I asked her to watch the video and to be very careful not to lose focus when she got into a part that she thought she understood.  I explained that this was a scavenger hunt, in a way.  The thing is, not only do you not know what you’re looking for, but you also don’t know where it is.  You’ll know it when you find it because it will confuse you a little.  But, it is probably small.

I talked with her about this and then asked her to share back with me what she discovered.  It was a small thing, and she improved.  Not only that, I hope that this practice will be applied independently in the future.

Another student approached me with a similar question.  This time, I believed the student knew, but the material was a little stale in her mind when she took the assessment.  I asked her to review a section in the textbook and write down everything that caused the reaction, “Oh, I do remember that.”  And, if something new pops up, lean into that!  Look for more information or problems involving this new thing.  Again, I asked her to report back to me what she discovered. 

In both cases, the remediation involved teaching those students to study by giving them technique, focus, and desired outcome. 

I have a couple of questions for you.  I’d like to hear your feedback.

First, do your students have access to everything they’re expected to learn and demonstrate in your class?  That doesn’t mean an example of how to solve a problem that will require creative problem-solving skills, but instead, things that can provide the opportunity to develop?  Do they have the nuts and bolts available to them, the dry material? 

Second, did any of the student advice strike you in a way that made you pause and imagine how you could use that yourself with your students?  What was it? 

Third, what ideas for this type of training and encouragement do you have?

One last thing.  If you found this thought-provoking and useful, please share!  One of the biggest hurdles with changing education from within is reach.  Politicians and leaders have reach, but as we mentioned, the nature of their job (even if they’re great at it) is to compress nuance, which largely contributes to the problems we are facing today in education.

I’d love to hear from you.  Be well.