One Story About Embracing Diversity and Empowering Students

In this powerful and inspiring TEDxManhattan talk, teacher Stephen Ritz shares a program he started with his students called Green Bronx Machine. More important than the program itself, though, is how the experiences have transformed and empowered his students — their present and their future.

Jackie Gerstein describes his work in her post “Learners as Entrepreneurs,”

Stephen Ritz’s Bronx classroom features the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage en route to graduation.

One of the things that makes his talk so incredible, besides the breakneck pace of it and his constant stream of witticisms, is how the program embraces the diversity — of mind, body, class, and culture — of his students. The student variation becomes a proof point for the validity and integrity of the program. Take a look and see for yourself.

What other projects / programs do you know of that support diverse student profiles and bring about good in a community? Share in the comments.

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Walking the (Learning) Walk

We find ourselves in something of a paradoxical education landscape. On the one hand we are learning more and more about the science of learning. Neuroscience is pushing the boundaries of the known world on a near daily basis. As a result, our knowledge about working with a variety of minds continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. Yet, numerous policy mandates bent on increasing “achievement” (as often measured by reading and math scores on standardized tests) require that we minimize the amount of time spent on some things that actually lead to increased learning.

In effect, we have removed tires from cars we want to go faster and farther.

Take exercise for example. We know that exercise is very good for cognitive functioning —  in youth, adults, and especially so in the elderly. However, there is a significant decrease in the amount of time given to students for recess, PE, and other active engagement.

The result isn’t just that we increase the risk of childhood obesity, we also reduce access to physical activity for students who need it for their own intellectual and physical well being. We are, consequently, leaving students behind.

However, the need to help all students reach their potential does not translate into a need for more seat time.  Quite the opposite in fact.

Educators know this. A student who is challenged in sustaining attention can find success through more active learning opportunities. Students who are lethargic or low on energy can get pepped up with a few in-class movement activities. These are tried and true tricks for most educators.

What happens, though, when the decrease in activity is systematically mandated and increased expectations become the norm? Should teachers just become accomplice in denying students the physical activity they need?  Not likely.

Former 5th grade teacher, Laura Fenn, found herself more and more troubled by the lack of activity and the resulting negative consequences on her students — both in terms of health and engagement. Through a clever use of technology, she found a way to meet both needs: activity and learning. In a recent blog post on Q.E.D. Foundation’s blog she wrote,

I witnessed an increase in the weight of the students at school and a decrease in the time allocated to physical activity.  Knowing how much I enjoyed going for a walk while listening to podcasts after school and on weekends, I thought that maybe my students might enjoy doing the same.  I scoured the Internet for educational podcasts that were *somewhat* related to our curriculum, and I loaded up a class set of mp3 players. My students would get some fresh air and exercise, but I could also convince my principal that we weren’t sacrificing any instructional time.

She went on to report,

Away we went–walking, listening and learning.  My students went nuts for the walking program—they thought they were getting out of something, but in fact, they got so much more:  they returned to class in better moods, more focused, and more productive. The best surprise was how effective walking while learning was for my non-traditional learners.  I had several ADHD boys who struggled in class simply because they poured every ounce of energy they had into trying to stay out of trouble.  While we walked, they could jiggle and wiggle as much as their bodies needed to, so their minds were freed up to absorb the content they were listening to.   I also had autistic students and dyslexic students who, for the first time in their academic career, regularly started participating in class discussions after our walks.  Kinesthetic learning was a preferred style of learning for these children that they didn’t know about.

We can tell our students all about different learning styles until we’re blue in the face, but until a child experiences a style of learning in which s/he succeeds, the words are empty.  To witness a child enjoy feeling smart is like no other joy that a teacher can experience.

Since making this discovery, Laura has since left the classroom and is now co-founder and Executive Director at The Walking Classroom, working to provide other classrooms and schools with podcasts and mp3 players aligned with the Common Core State Standards. One very encouraging outcome of her endeavor: others are reporting similar findings and increased levels of engagement. (You can learn more at The Walking Classroom.)

Where else are innovations meeting the needs of students in creative and inclusive ways? What other programs might we highlight?

Image: Jen McNulty

Words that Ignite Learning

Below is a guest post by Kevin Washburn, Ed.D., author of “Architecture of Learning” and Executive Director of Clerestory Learning. His most recent recording at a Learning and Brain Conference can be found here

3184815166_1b775d1817It seems like a ridiculous question: Can a teacher’s words influence student learning?  Of course, we’d respond, how well a teacher explains new ideas naturally influences student learning.

But what about the words that are less planned, the comments teachers make in response to students’ ideas, efforts, and results? Can they make much of a difference?

Research suggests they can and do, probably to degrees we’d be surprised to discover.

Words reinforce beliefs, and beliefs, especially those about intelligence, influence learning. Students can hold or lean toward either believing intelligence is something you’re born with (or without), or intelligence is something you gain through effort. A student who believes you’re born smart—or not—is less likely to put forth effort to learn. This student seeks to convince those around him that he is one of the chosen who were given the gift of smart at birth. Either that, or the student may believe he is not among the chosen so effort is futile. The same belief interpreted differently yields the same result: a student who is unlikely to work to learn when learning does not come instantly or easily.

This mostly erroneous belief can be slippery. A student may believe it is true in one discipline but not another. For example, the same student can believe that you are/aren’t born smart in mathematics, but that you get better at reading through effort.

Where do these beliefs originate? Many times in the home. We’ve probably all heard a student say something like, “My dad said that I’m probably not good at math because when he was my age, he wasn’t good at math either.” The father’s words conveyed, confirmed, and/or introduced the wrong belief. When adopted by the child, the erroneous belief becomes an obstacle to learning.

However, communicating the wrong idea about intelligence is not usually so overt. In fact, it can show up in a statement intended to encourage learning: “Wow, Sam, you’re really good at math.” Such a statement emphasizes a belief that intelligence is something you are/aren’t born with because it suggests innate ability rather than drawing attention to the effort-result relationship. “Wow, Sam, you worked hard on this and look at these results!” is better because it reinforces the idea that we get smart through effort.

Just how much of a difference can this make?

In one study, some teachers used comments that suggested intelligence as inherited (“You’re smart at this!”) while others phrased comments that emphasized effort-result relationships (“You worked hard and look at the results!” or “We didn’t work very hard at this and the results show it. How can we make this better?”)

The results reveal the power of words that suggest both the right and the wrong beliefs. Students praised for innate ability put forth less effort, avoided challenge and feedback, and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. Not only did they not learn much, they seemed to lose ⅕ of what they knew prior to instruction.

In contrast, the students praised for their efforts sought challenge, desired feedback, and had a 30% gain between pre- and post-testing. Think about that—a 50% difference existed between the two groups at the study’s conclusion, and the defining factor was the teacher’s words.1

Neurobiology plays a role in this effect. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Jonah Lehrer explains, “The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the ‘smart’ compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.”2

Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake. The student who believes intelligence is genetic loses this opportunity because he generally refuses to attend to his mistakes.

Our words can influence the belief students hold about intelligence, and that belief influences the effort students apply to learning. We need to pause and think, “How can I phrase this feedback so that it emphasizes an effort-result relationship?” Our students may have to wait a moment for our comments, but what they receive may actually make them better learners.

A wise writer once warned that words can be so destructive they burn down entire forests. But fire can also ignite rockets.

Let’s intentionally use our words to ignite learning.

References

  1. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  2. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 53-54.

This post was originally published at Ecology of Education

Photo Credit: DailyPic via Compfight cc

Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies

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Seeing the forest despite the trees.

Our nation’s educational focus continues to zero in on “achievement” as defined by test scores in specific academic areas and the resulting gaps therein. This hyper focus exacerbates our nearly systematic blind eye related to learning for living and cultivating life long learners. As a result, policies that increase the stakes of standardized assessments necessitate schools increase the amount of time spent on basic skills — reading and math, primarily — to the exclusion of a broad range of other skills, experiences, and competencies. In effect, we see a couple of trees, but miss the forest, or big picture ecology, of learning.

However, research suggests there are programs that have the dual benefits of both raising achievement and increasing student well being. It is in this realm where we learn to think about education in terms of the forest, despite our hyper focus on the trees.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is such an example. CASEL (Collaborative For Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) is the leading organization working to build demand and capacity for SEL. Their work ranges from network building to conducting research to policy advocacy. Below is a graphic (source here) illustrating what they define as the core competencies for SEL.

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Additionally, they published a meta-analysis of research titled, “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning” (download it here). The meta-analysis concluded:

The reviews indicate that SEL programs:

  • Are effective in both school and after-school settings and for students with and without behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Are effective for racially and ethnically diverse students from urban, rural, and suburban settings across the K-12 grade range.
  • Improve students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, connection to school, and positive social behavior; and reduce conduct problems and emotional distress.
  • Improve students’ achievement test scores by 11 percentile points.

It all demonstrates that we must think more holistically about students, learning, and the ecology of education. Simply working to improve math and reading test achievement falls far short of ensuring that our students are healthy, safe, engaged, challenged, and supported in the ways that matter most to their long term personal “achievement.”

Special thanks to Jackie Gerstein, whose post “Video Games and Social Emotional Learning” first pointed us to this chart.

This is a part of an ongoing series exploring components of QED’s Transformational Learning Model. This piece relates to Academic Access, Curriculum Frame, Curriculum Goals, and Student Support.

Photo Credit: Today is a good day via Compfight cc

Anxiety and the Mind

Below is an image from a Time Magazine article on the “Anatomy of Anxiety” from a few years ago. While the article is a bit dated, the relevance remains, especially for educators.

Students need to feel relaxed, safe, and welcome in order to learn effectively. If we focus only on content and raise the stakes of assessments, we increase some students’ anxiety and make it more difficult for them to learn. A reminder that our job in working with students begins, and is sustained, through relationship building and trust.

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Image: Joel Ertola via Time 

 

Minds at Work, Unpacked

An All Kinds of Mind’s School of Distinction, St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Potomac, Maryland discovered their top to bottom attention to research-based practices necessitated founding an institution dedicated to exploring the meeting ground between neuroscience research and educational practices. Their Center for Transformational Teaching and Learning was created with four key questions in mind:

1. What is learning?

2.Where does learning happen?

3. How do all students best learn?

4. What research in educational neuroscience can help inform and measure exceptional teaching and learning?

As a center, their mission states:

The CTTL’s long-term vision is to be a thought-leader in the neuro-science of teaching and learning and to share what we know and learn with public and private schools nationwide.

Its recent publication, Think Differently and Deeply, explores the application of emerging trends in the science of learning with their efforts to push each and every student to their fullest potential. While the publication unpacks the theories in the context of their school, readers will find transferable ideas for better meeting the needs of all students. Topics include neuroscience in education, design thinking, play, centrality of arts, and foreign language and the mind, among others.

Visit their site, explore their resources, and consider working with them as to complement and inform your school’s professional development plans.

You can also download the pdf here

Tipping the Balance in Students’ Favor

By AKOM Guest Blogger Sally Hunter

 

I am struck by the reality that schools today require teachers to become skilled performers in an increasingly complex and critical balancing act.  In more and more public classrooms, elementary teachers are asked to spend the bulk of their day following impersonal lesson plans, preparing students for mandated tests, and completing layers of benchmarks and reports to document their efforts.  Schools are overwhelmed with well-intentioned but imperfect government mandates, liability inspired paperwork, over-emphasis on high stakes testing, and the bureaucratic tendency to jump on new ideas and methods simply because they are new.  Evaluating schools, teachers, and students has become a checklist of what is easiest to test, rather than what will prepare individual students to become confident, active, productive citizens.

Successful teachers must strive to balance their instruction by finding time and energy to focus on each individual student and help every learner develop crucial connections:

  • connections to their own minds, learning profiles, and potential passions
  • connections to their own creativity, talents, and personal strengths
  • connections to the power each individual has to bond and collaborate with others
  • connections to the future through their own dreams and actions today

Without these essential connections, students will never reach their full potential or have truly successful and satisfying adult lives, no matter how skilled they become in reading, math, and science.

My hope for the New Year is that all students would have teachers who tip the instructional scales in students’ favor by creating learning environments in which these connections are inevitable; naturally integrated throughout a curriculum that includes character education, social studies, and the arts.  Teachers who provide the structure and flexibility for students to explore the world and apply their discoveries in creative and meaningful ways.  Teachers who train students to work together, build on one another’s ideas, respectfully disagree with one another, and provide supporting evidence for their ideas and perspectives.  Teachers who encourage students to set and pursue their own goals while helping them develop strategies to achieve those goals.  Students must understand themselves and their place in the world before they can begin to understand the rich and amazing possibilities the world has to offer them.

Sally Hunter, a 4th grade teacher at Highland Park Elementary in the Austin Independent School District, was named 2010 National Council for the Social Studies Elementary Teacher of the Year. In addition to teaching and writing curriculum, she is a Schools Attuned facilitator for The Learning Center of North Texas.