How Can I Apply my Summer Reading to the Classroom?

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While I’m all about science and the study of meteorology, I often find weather forecasts to be confusing and inaccurate.  What does partly cloudy really mean?  How many clouds will be in the sky?  Will we see the sun at all?  What fraction of the sky will be covered by clouds?  I’ve given up putting my faith in the daily weather forecast due to all of this puzzling information.  Instead, when I want to know what the weather is, I simply go outside and look up.  Are there clouds in the sky?  Is it sunny?  I will sometimes also lick my finger and place it into the air to find out how windy it is and in what direction it’s blowing from.  I don’t need some fancy computer model telling me something that may not be true when I can just figure it out for myself.

So, this morning, when I was trying to figure out how to prepare for my weekly shopping trip, I went outside and looked up.  The normally blue sky was 100% covered by clouds.  It looked like an overcast kind of day.  Perhaps the sun would come out later in the day, or maybe not.  It’s really hard to tell.  Might the clouds thicken and produce some moist precipitation?  It’s possible.  Thankfully, the cloud cover brought the temperature down a bit from where they’ve been over the past few days.  Could that change and the clouds move out, giving way to sunshine and increased temperatures?  Perhaps.  Anything is possible on an overcast day like today.  Do I bring a raincoat or umbrella with me to keep my clothes dry?  Do I wear my hat to shield my balding head from the harmful UV rays?  What do I do?  So many questions, with no immediate answers.

Like trying to prepare for the uncertainty of today’s weather, teachers and schools around the country are trying to figure out what the start of the new school year will look like.  Will schools reopen?  Will all students return to school?  Will there be a staggered schedule?  Will students be able to keep their face coverings on through the day if we do return to school?  What precautions will schools take to keep their students and faculty safe?  Would it be safer to simply begin the year the same way we ended the previous academic year, with remote learning?  Too many questions with not enough answers or solutions.  What will September look like for schools, teachers, and students around the country?  As facts regarding the current pandemic have been changing faster than a newborn baby needs to have his or her diaper changed, it’s my perception that schools can’t completely prepare for something that is two months away.  So much can change in that period of time.  What do we do in the meantime then?  We watch, wait, and prepare for numerous possible solutions to the problem of how to start the new school year come September.

While there is much I don’t know about what the new school year holds for me and my school, I do feel confident that I can be prepared for almost every possible outcome.  My gassy gut is telling me that we will most likely have to utilize a combination of in-school and remote learning programs throughout the upcoming school year.  So, I’m looking to grow as a multi-faceted educator who can transition between on-site teaching and distance teaching as quickly as that pizza box guy can fold pizza boxes.

As I dug a bit further into the professional development text that the faculty and staff at my school are reading this summer, I was filled with excitement about some of the new things I want to try in my classroom or online in just a few short months.  When I finally finished the book, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners by Michael Wehmeyer and Yong Zhao, I felt empowered, as I gained insight into how to improve my remote learning program and my on-site teaching.  Several years ago, when I completed a course on the neuroscience of teaching, I realized the power in creating a student-centered approach to teaching.  When students are in control of their learning, they are more engaged, curious, and motivated to work hard.  This book that I recently finished takes that whole body of knowledge to the next level and explains how to create classrooms and schools that truly empower students to take ownership of their learning through becoming self-determined learners.  I loved the way in which the book was crafted.  It felt more like a non-fiction book than it did an educational textbook.  It wasn’t dense, but it did contain much valuable information on teaching and learning.  I enjoyed how the authors shared research knowledge in relevant and manageable chunks while also mixing in lots of stories on how schools around the globe have created student-driven programs for their students.  I highly recommend this text for all teachers looking to grow and become a more effective guide for their students.  As I’ve known for many years now, teaching isn’t about being the sage on the stage, it’s about being the guide from the side.  And this book provides salient information on how to do that in a more meaningful and effective manner.

Some of my takeaways from the book…

  • Should homework be choice-based for students?  Rather than us as the teachers assigning homework that is, perhaps, sometimes seen as busy work by the students, should we allow the students to choose their homework assignments?  Maybe a student who is struggling to comprehend a newly learned math concept would find further practice with that topic more beneficial than reading on a particular night.  Or perhaps, a student working on crafting a creative fiction story might want to spend time outside of school continuing to develop his or her story instead of completing a math worksheet or some other unrelated task.  As we want our students to engage in the learning tasks, activities, and projects they complete during class, shouldn’t we also want them to be engaged in the work they are doing outside of the confines of class time?  I’m thinking that I might pilot this practice by providing my students with some options for homework each night and allowing them to choose what they will do.  Perhaps some students might have a lot of extracurricular activities happening that night and homework just isn’t feasible.  Isn’t that an okay choice too?  As teachers, we need to be sure that our students are finding a balance between work, play, and self-care.  Maybe homework doesn’t need to be assigned nightly.  Interesting food for thought indeed.  I can’t wait to see how it plays out in practice.
  • How might we get students involved in classroom organization?  Could the students help us determine how to best set up and organize our classrooms?  Perhaps we could work this into our Orientation Day schedule.  Now, this idea, of course, would not be able to be put into practice until after the pandemic has subsided and an effective vaccine is widely available for all citizens.  But, I do love the idea of having the students help to create their ideal classroom.  They could determine the posters that we plaster onto the walls, as well as how we organize the desks and other areas of the classroom.  Maybe they would choose not to use chairs but beanbags or exercise balls instead.  This would be so much fun.  I can’t wait to try this idea in a year or two.
  • At our Closing Faculty Meetings last week, we discussed the idea of student recognition.  How could we best recognize and celebrate student successes without creating a culture of competition and stress to be recognized?  What if we looked to celebrate character instead of academic achievements?  Rather than recognizing the grades a student earns, we could celebrate the positive and caring choices he or she makes.   One of the schools referenced in the book makes use of a Bucket Filling Board based on the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud.  My school should totally do that.  We could create a bulletin board display in the front entryway of the school that the students and faculty could use to recognize caring and compassionate choices and actions.  If I notice that a student is going above and beyond to help another student understand a difficult concept, I could recognize them in writing on this board.  I could also then share this example of bucket filling with the greater community during one of our all-school gatherings that take place each morning.  This way, we are teaching students to see the value in kindness, compassion, and caring.  I love it!
  • Should we have a student government at my school?  While we are a micro-school with about 40 students or so, does it make sense to have a governing body composed of students to help the faculty and staff make decisions for the school?  I think it would help students feel and be more involved in the entire process of schooling and education if we were to do so.  Instead of complaining about the way things are, students could work to foster change in the school.  There could be one delegate from each grade, chosen by the students.  They could meet weekly or more frequently, with the aid of a faculty advisor, to discuss changes they would want to make.  They could ask for feedback from their peers for ideas.  Then, once every few weeks, that group could attend one of our Faculty Meetings to share their ideas with us.  We could also ask for their input on school decisions we are making as a faculty.  Talk about engagement.  It would also allow us to meaningfully teach the power of civic duty and responsibility.  I’m totally bringing this idea up with the faculty at one of our next Faculty Meetings.
  • Could we make use of the idea of a Personalized Learning Plan if remote learning happens?  We could work with each student and their family to devise a plan for their learning during the time away from school.  The students could have input on what they learn and how they choose to showcase their learning.  I like this idea because, again, it puts the onus on the students as they work to become self-determined leaners.
  • The book discussed the importance of teaching students an effective process for solving problems.  I like this idea and want to start the new school year introducing the concept of problem solving to my students.  Once I introduce the steps of the process to the class, we could then apply them to a practice problem.  I thought it would be a cool idea to have the students work with me to create a meaningful set of class expectations.  This way they can take ownership of the rules, which would hopefully, in turn, allow them to be more engaged in the entire process of learning.  I can’t wait to try this out in the classroom.
  • Another school featured in the book had students complete the VIA Character Youth Survey as a way to help celebrate the various character traits that students bring to a classroom.  I like this idea and see that it could also be used to help create tailored plans for students to work on developing their lesser strengths.  I took the adult version of the survey and was surprised by the findings.  I feel that knowing where my weaknesses lie, helps me to focus on areas in need of growth.  So cool!  I am totally using this in the classroom.
  • I was intrigued by the Hole in the Wall Project conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s in India.  It made me realize how truly capable our students are.  Their brains seem to be more able to be open to new things and ways of learning.  If we give students the time and space to figure things out on their own, they are very able to teach themselves.  So, instead of me spending lots of time explaining how to use a new technology tool, I could provide my students with time to explore and play on their own.  This way, they can learn on their own, applying the problem solving process I plan to teach early in the year.  I love this idea!

What a fantastic book filled with great and inspiring ideas.  Schools can be magical places that empower students to engage in and own their learning, if the adults at the schools allow these things to happen by fostering a sense of student agency and teaching students to become self-determined learners.

While the weather outside is still uncertain, I know that I am excited for the new school year to begin, regardless of how it will look or be designed.  I’m ready to try some new things remotely or on-site.  The unknown can easily become a haven for possibility if we are open to taking risks and trying new things.

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