The Hook: What’s in a name

The language we use has a real power to influence how we understand our world—and act in it. –Kristin Lin, Editor, The On Being Project

My wife Joanna and I just finished facilitating two wonder-full institutes on Deeper Learning in Christian Schools and are planning a third in the Dominican Republic. David Smith has been with us (in spirit–see his book On Christian Teaching), prompting us to think more deeply about the implicit messages in our teaching practices. The ways in which we design curriculum, instruction, and assessment; the ways we utilize space, time, and resources; and the ways we structure leadership and communication operate at a level deeper than cognition, more formative than what we think and talk about with our heads.

Even the name we assign to our practices carries a formative message. It is through language that we make meaning of our experiences, that we shape chaos into order, just like the logos in the beginning. How we name something affects how we understand it, how we feel about it, and how we act. I was intrigued by Mark Allan Powell’s challenge (in Chasing the Eastern Star) to think of how we might name the parable we often call “The Prodigal Son.” What if we called it The Forgiving Father? The Loyal Son? The Two Lost Sons? The Foolish Father? The name we give this story has a significant effect on the way we read the text and the message we get from it.

This issue of naming brings me to “the hook,” also known in education as the lead-in, anticipatory set, advance organizer, provocation, or set induction. The intent to engage students is similar, but each title implies a different “lesson-view.” The language we use conveys our assumptions about who the learner is, what the subject is,  what the purpose is for our learning. What does the “hook” imply?

There is a lot we could unpack in the metaphor of the “hook.” But we don’t have to sink very deep to catch the primary implication–that our students are not naturally inclined to learn, that we have to somehow trick them with shiny objects, catch them against their will, and pull them grudgingly into our boat.

I know it’s just a word, but words themselves are anticipatory sets: they activate our schema and evoke all manner of preconceptions, associated feelings, and experiences. (Reading teachers, see “The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently” by Thomas Lux).

There are other educational buzzwords that we should probably replace. When I worked with EL Education, the first word we banned was “fieldtrip.” What do you think of when you hear this word? What associations do you make? The trip to the farm, the aquarium, the museum. Kids running around looking for the next “shiny object.” And whenever possible, the gift shop! Ice cream! How do you prepare yourself and your students? What do they anticipate when they prepare for a “fieldtrip”? EL Education schools don’t take fieldtrips: they do fieldwork. Fieldwork is what adult professionals do: fieldwork is research in the real world. Fieldwork demands an entirely different preparation and expects an entirely different result.

Or, who comes to teach your class when you are absent? Probably the “sub.” What is activated in your students’ minds when they hear the word “sub”? And what does that say about the person coming in to teach them? I encourage schools to call them “guest teachers.” Welcoming a guest gives an entirely different message than having a sub!

David Smith suggests that we imagine our teaching as an act of hospitality, welcoming even our students as guests: “[W]hat if we thought of teaching as an act of hospitality, and of the classroom as a hospitable space? . . . How might this image of the classroom offer resources for facing difficult students and insensitive behavior? How might it frame the relationship to knowledge that we model, and the amount of time we give to student voices and contributions? What kinds of learning might help students to become more hospitable towards others?”

How might this idea of teaching as hospitality frame our intent to engage students in learning? In the spirit of hospitality, let’s call it an invitation. An invitation sets up a fundamentally different context for learning than a hook. I asked Joanna, who serves as principal of New Covenant School, to describe how she invites her students on the first day of school into the great adventure of learning in order to serve the King who calls us to build for His kingdom–a kingdom of justice, stewardship, healing, reconciliation, restoration. Here is the invitation she described:

At New Covenant School in Arlington, Massachusetts, we dress in our finest outfits for our opening ceremony to reflect the importance of the work we will do in the coming year. At some point in the ceremony I hold out a rolled-up parchment scroll edged in gold and bound with a rich purple ribbon. I tell the students that I found it on my desk and ask if they think I should open it.  Of course they do!  I unroll it with a flourish, scan it quickly, then share that it is an invitation from the King. 

A paragraph addressed to each class invites them to use their learning during the year to build for His kingdom in a particular sphere, thus giving a hint of what their expedition will be, but not giving it away. For example, the King may invite one class to give particular honor and respect to people who are lonely and forgotten in our culture. It asks them to work in such a way that these people know that God has not forgotten them. Later the students will learn that they will be writing the life stories of the elderly at an assisted living facility. Another class may be asked to steward one of God’s most amazing creations through conservation and make it available to those who don’t have access to it. The class later discovers they will be studying water and raising money to support digging wells in developing nations.

With each of these invitations comes a special gift–one of our six words of servanthood that will be key in doing this work: “Respect” for those working with the elderly and “Integrity” for those learning to conserve and share clean water.  Each teacher posts the invitation to her class in a prominent spot in their room. As a new trimester opens, we revisit the invitation and share the ways in which we have responded. By the end of the year, each class presents to the community how their work has built for the Kingdom.

Next month I’ll share some other ideas about creating engaging invitations. 

Offered in the spirit of hospitality, an invitation communicates messages like my friend Carol Ann Tomlinson describes in her article in EL Educational Leadership. Every teacher would tell their students they believed these things, but the challenge is to align your practices with them–in deed, not just in word:

I have respect for who you are and who you can become. I want to know you. I have time for you. I try to see things through your eyes. This classroom is ours, not mine. There is room for what you care about in what we learn. Your peers and I need you here as a partner in learning. I will help you understand yourself and your world [*and your God!] through what we learn. . . . Your success is central in this classroom. . . . There is great support for you here but no room for excuses. I watch you and listen to you carefully. I make sure that I use what I learn to help you learn better. You’re growing, but you’re not finished growing. There is no finish line in learning [∗about yourself, your neighbor and your God].

∗ additions mine (Steven’s)

The influence of Joe Bower

I gave up Facebook 2 days ago. I’m hoping it’ll be long term but I’m not sure how long it’ll be for – but that’s another matter. One of the side effects of logging of Facebook is that I’ve been going to twitter more regularly that I have in the last few years. So when I logged in to twitter today, it was with great sadness today that I found out that Joe Bower had passed. Joe Bower was the author an educational blog “For the love of learning” and was instrumental in changing the way I thought about learning and educational practices such as assessment, grading, rewards and motivation.

His blog site was a go to site for me when I wanted to read a considered opinion about assessment and learning. He was passionate about education and more importantly about his students and ensuring that they had the best learning experience he could provide and that they deserved.

I didn’t know Joe personally other than a skype call here or there to pose some questions I had about the practicalities of de-grading my classrooms. I’ll always appreciate that he gave up his time to help me better understand how to change my practices. I no longer give marks or grades except when I have Anyway, if you haven’t read his blog, you should. If you didn’t know he had a book, you should buy it and share it around your colleagues. I’m thankful that I stumbled across him on twitter. It changed my professional practice.

Vale Joe Bower.

Post Script: After writing this blog I finally got around to checking the ‘report’ for my blog for 2015. I only posted once but so I wasn’t expecting anything too amazing but I was blown away that one of the 5 sites that was highlighted for directing people to my site was Joe’s blog. A quick search on his site and I found that he’d highlighted one of my blog posts back in 2015. I’m blown away a) by the timing of this revelation and b) that he thought it worthy of sharing.

referring sites

 

How “school” can kill the desire to learn

I used this image in one of my classes earlier this year and thought I’d struck gold. I actually had but, sadly, the school “system” quickly tarnished it and gave me clearest indication that school, which is intended to increase our students desire to learn, in it’s institutionalised form can actually do the opposite.

I’ve been encouraged to use stories and stimulus materials to pique the student’s curiosity and to use the stories behind the pictures to challenge their thinking and actions. As the Olympic games were bearing down on us, we were doing a unit in our elective sports science class about “Issues in Sport”. I thought I’d use this famous image of the 1968 Olympic Games 200m Podium to discuss the place of sport in society and whether their is a place for protests in sport or at the Olympics.

As the students entered the room I had this image up on the wall waiting for them. At this time, I gave them no information about what it was, when it was or what was happening. I simply asked the students to do two things:

  1. Write down everything they observed in the image
  2. Write down any questions that you have about the image

It was slow to get started but with a little bit of prodding the students really got going, they were calling out the things they observed and others were writing down ideas they were hearing from other students, they were asking me lots of questions and I just told them to record all the questions they had. They’d wondered why they were wearing gloves, why they had no shoes, why were they facing the way they did, what was the badge they were all wearing and plenty more.

Once the observations and questions started to dry up, I shared with the class the key details: that it was a picture taken at the 1968 Olympic Games after the 200m Sprint. Once the students had this they were then able to go and find answers to the questions. The next 20 -30 mins was some of the most enjoyable moments of my teaching year. Some of the students had found footage of the race and were watching it, others were finding answers to their questions. All 18 students were ‘hooked’. They were calling out the answers they found “The two Americans were banned from going to the Olympics again. Why was that?” Good question, write it down was my response. “Peter Norman never represented Australia again after this either. Why wasn’t he allowed to compete? He didn’t make the salute.” Good question, write it down.

This went on for the remainder of the lesson. It was pretty to watch.

Then the bell rang.

I didn’t have my class for another 3 days. As they came in, again I had the same picture on the wall. The immediate response from most students was “What? Are we still doing that?”. The break had killed their enthusiasm and curiosity. It had drained all momentum that had been built as we worked toward talking about why human rights were important enough to these athletes that they’d risk being banned from competition and why an Australian who wasn’t living amongst the racial tensions of the USA at the time would stand up for the same thing. Or what we’d be willing to stand up for?

It made me realise it must be so frustrating for students to go from one lesson to the next regardless of where they are up to. To be fully immersed in a learning experience and have to stop, pack up and move to another lesson and start again.

I’ve got no answers to make it right other than to say that it’s broken. So much of our schooling is institutionalised and constructed to fit in the “timetable” to make it easier for teachers to work but how much of what we do is set up to make it easy for the students to learn and enjoy learning?

As someone who doesn’t have the power to change things, I can only ask the questions. I don’t even have a solid answer to my own questions really, but it’s becoming clearer how much of what we are doing is actually making it hard for students to grow in their love for learning.

Classroom expectations – theirs or mine?

At the start of each year, a common discussion topic among teachers is ‘What do you do in the first lesson with your classes?’. Old school teachers may reply “Be tough, don’t smile until Easter”, “Put them in a seating plan, get them working hard to set a good work ethic” etc etc.

Well, this year, for the first time in a long time, I’d never taught any of the students in three of my five classes. Two were year 9 and one was a year 7 class. For year 7, that’s par for the course, but for the two Year 9 classes, their only knowledge or experience of me as a teacher will predominantly have come from others – either siblings or friends – evidenced by comments such as ‘don’t you give lots of detentions for such and such’, ‘I heard you give lots of homework, is that true’. So my first class had greater significance than ever before. Rather than set out my class rules/expectations, our first lessons were focused on students developing/setting the expectations, giving them some ownership over the culture we are to develop int he classroom.

Our first activity was to work in small groups and discuss what they thought were reasonable expectations for each of them in this class. This was followed by a class discussion and developing a set of expectations for behaviour and work ethic that would set the standard for the year.

Here’s what they came up with:

Student Expectations

  • Do your best. Work to the best of  your ability at all times.
  • Listen when someone else is talking
  • Treat your classmates with respect (this probably covers number 2 anyway)
  • Submit or complete work on time
  • Ask Questions when you don’t understand something
  • Come to class with everything you need

The only thing I had to add was:

  • Try new things and expect to make mistakes.

I thought this last one was important to add to get the students thinking about the role of mistakes in learning and because I want to try and foster an atmosphere  where they aren’t afraid to make mistakes. Hopefully, this will help them take more risks in their learning and experiment more with their projects and tasks.

The second part of the lesson was to determine what were realistic expectations of the teacher. Again, students had time to brainstorm their thoughts and then report back to the whole class. This is where the activity got interesting and required some light hearted negotiation. Students’ suggestions included ‘Give no homework’, ‘Don’t give detentions’. The most interesting and provocative though was “You need toteachus”. My response was “I can’t guarantete you that I’ll teach you as much as you want” This really got them going. “You have to teach us, that’s your job”, “that’s what our parents pay fees for” (we are a private school). I countered that my job isn’t to teach them, but to help them learn. Well, this seemed to spin a few heads as their were lots of confused looks in the room. It’s the first time that I’ve ever had that discussion with junior years and proved that it is a really worthwhile task to do with your class. Let them set the expectations and negotiate with them how the classroom will work to provide a positive learning environment.

Here is the final teacher expectations:

  • Have realistic work load expectations and time frames.
  • Treat students with respect
  • Encourage students in what they do
  • Give meaningful feedback on your work (this was my addition)
  • Listen to students’ ideas

So, a few final thoughts, who sets the expectations in your classroom? Do students have a voice in their learning environment? Will you be teaching the students, or helping them to learn.

Masterchef and the classroom

The third season of Masterchef is about to come to an end here in Australia and its just dawned on me that it provides a great model for teachers to use in their own classrooms.

What we see in Masterchef is home cooks who aren’t trained chefs given a task or challenge to complete but with very little instruction on how to complete the task. They have to create a meal or dish to serve in the specified time frame. Its not totally free play, they are given guidelines for what they can create and often a restricted number of pantry items to cook with but choice as to what they will use and create with them. Classic project based learning tasks.

The contestants demonstrate problem solving skills in deciding what to cook and how to overcome the limits they have to work in. At the end of each episode they present their dish to the judges for feedback on it success (or otherwise). This feedback isn’t only from the head judges, often its front the people they cook for in challenges and gives them a timely insight into what worked and what didn’t, or what tasted good and what didn’t. But the judges don’t just wait until the finished product, they move from bench to bench using their professional experience to guide their ‘students’ when they feel they maybe goin off track.

When they aren’t cooking we are often shown pictures of them reading books to learn new techniques, favours that work well together and about cooking food from other cultures – self directed learning.

This to me, is a great model for classroom learning. Create tasks that will incorporate problem solving, self directed learing, something to create tasks (that hopefully is meaningful), that they can present for feedback – not just for marks but for what they know, have learned or the usefulness of what they’ve created and that allows them to improve what they are doing before they’ve gone too far the wring direction. Scaffold the tasks to in a way to give direction but not to stifle creativity or independent thinking, and that allows students to work to a level they are capable of achieving.

The final piece that I haven’t mentioned is the Friday night ‘master class’. An opportunity for the professionals to demonstrate some techniques or dishes to their pupils. To share with them something they know more about than the students. And, more importantly they bring in other experts to their kitchen to teach the things they don’t know as well as they do.

This is one area that we teachers can really learn from. We shouldn’t be afraid to call on others who know more than we do to teach something. And that digest have to be from outside our school, we could use an IT teacher to demonstrate skills, an art teacher to teach design or even someone from our own faculty will have different expertise in different areas to me. To be honest there are probably students who could give masterclasses on many things to. Off the top of my head, in my year 10 class I currently have students who could give master classes on web design, photoshop.

The challenge now is to learn how to devplop the tasks, how to scaffold, write rubrics, as well as re-educate myself, other staff and most importantly the students on how to work in this environment. Easy right?

Time, Time, Time …

Not so long ago, as you’ll read from my other blog posts, I realised the potential for enhancing student learning through technology. Since then I’ve been busy gathering ideas from others in my PLN on ways to use technology. I’ve observed plenty of great things that happening in classroom by sitting back and watching/listening to my twitter feed. Now that’s all well and good but now I’ve hit a snag. Where do I get the time to integrate all these into my teaching? There’s so much to try but even just sorting through the different tools can take up an age of time and I guess I’m becoming frustrated that I don’t have the time to apply these tools to my teaching.

I get the feeling that the people who are doing it well are spending hours of time finding tools and then implementing them into their teaching. I don’t think I’m doing too badly at it, it’s just the potential for engaging with the students is so great and doing things that help them learn has to be a good thing right? But, where do I find the time to do this without upsetting my family and missing out on life?

On top of that, how do I encourage other members of my staff to try these new things when they already feel they’re strapped for time, and that learning new technologies is only going to burdern them more?And the thought of having to introduce it to their physical education lessons too adds even more time to the mix.

Is it that this is just something we have to do if we want to improve our teaching or, if this the future then should we be allowing more time for professional development and follow up?

I’m really interested in knowing what others who are bit further down the track have gone about it? What’s the process been in your school?

Professional Development – Is it worth it?

Just recently, all staff at my school received an email from our Professional Development (PD) coordinator  indicating that the budgets were already stretched half-way through the school year and that further PD would only be approved if it was essential. After reading a blog by Dr Ash Casey,  I’ve been thinking about how useful PD is and how much of what we actually do at these events is actually put into action?

I know from my own experiences with PD that you often come away with a handful of great ideas but once you get back to work the next day, you have a mountain of emails to sort through, lesson notes etc stacked on your desk and by the time the dust has cleared the things you have learned have already been stored away and you slip back into what is comfortable.

It has lead me to believing that if we head to these days and just come away with a good feed (and sometimes not even that) and a nice cruisy day away from students, and we never change our teaching methods to introduce what we’ve learned, we are in essence wasting money that could be spent better on other things.

So, as head teacher of a department, what can I do to make sure that my staff are using what they’ve learned at a PD course to not only improve their teaching but more importantly, improve the learning of the students we teach. As a result, I’ve decided to create a document that staff will fill out when they return to school that will assess what they learned at the course as well as how and where they can implement it into their teaching. This can then be followed by a review of their practices in say 3 months time to see whether they have used what they learned.

But what should I include exactly? My starting questions are:

  • Identify the practices/ideas from the PD course that you attended that you feel you could/would be helpful to introduce to your teaching
  • For each practice you have listed, identify areas/topics/units that they could be employ

The follow up will probably include questions such a:

  • How well do you feel that you have integrated the information learned at the PD course into you teaching?
  • Indicate, which of the practices/ideas you have tried, which unit it was in, how effectively it worked and how you could alter it so that it would be more effective.

I’m interested to hear what people think. What else could I include? Do you use anything similar? How successful is it?