My Best Moment of the Week: Getting Students’ Feedback (19/365)

students raising their hands in a full lecture hall

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Visiting one of our elementary schools last week to drop something off, I used the chance to visit a couple of classrooms. While I was standing in the doorway of one fourth-grade room, the teacher crossed to me.

“They’re just wrapping up their reading groups,” she said and explained this was the second week of the students working through a menu. Each week groups had a selection of Must Do and May Do activities to work through. It was an added element of student choice and a move on the teacher’s part to better recognize students’ agency.

The teacher told me she’d been impressed with what she’d seen in the first couple weeks and she was working to help the students get used to their new control over the learning.

“And what about the kids,” I asked, “Do you have some sort of feedback mechanism built in to get a sense on how they’re thinking about the changes?”

“That’s a really good question,” she said without missing a beat, “Let’s do that now.”

She called the groups back to their spots and asked them to discuss two questions with one another: What was going well with the new structures, and what could they do to improve the class moving forward?

That would have been enough to make my week. Not only were this teacher and her team trying something new based on a drive to get out of students’ way and better honor their agency, she saw value in hearing students’ feedback to such a degree that she was willing to adjust her plans on the fly to give students an opportunity to report out on what they thought of her new ideas. That, alone, would be enough.

But, that wasn’t the best part.

I perched myself amidst a group of four young women and listened as they talked with one another in response to their teacher’s questions. It was an exchange the civility and earnestness of which I’ve rarely seen in a faculty meeting. Their teacher had given them yet another chance to help chart the course of their learning and they were equal to the task.

As their conversation wrapped up, I asked if I could get their feedback on one more query. “Sure,” they told me.

“Well, your teacher is responsible for making sure you’re learning, right? So, how, with this new way of doing things, might she be able to keep better track of what everyone’s doing and what they’re learning from it?”

A pause as four faces with pursed lips considered my question.

Then, they were at it again. A lot of decisive, Wells as they started tossing ideas around, building on and pushing the thinking of those who’d spoken before them.

My favorite idea came from the student sitting to my left. She suggested students could write a couple of sentences as they finished an activity, relaying what they’d done in their groups and what they’d learned from it. Then, she said, they could take pictures of their writing and share it on Seesaw so both their families and their teacher could see their thinking.

I’ve been in 3-hour meetings with teachers where only at the end did we get to an idea as clear and salient as hers.

To anyone who’s been following these ideas for a while, it should be clear why these moves of practice and these ideas brought me so much joy.

What might not be as clear is the joy I took in the ease with which these students had their conversations and shared their ideas. You might not see my joy at how quickly their teacher considered a new idea, modified her plan for the day, and sought her students’ feedback. The ease and comfort of all of this bring me joy because they signal this is the normal for this classroom. Conversations, democracy, feedback, honoring students’ thinking – they were all taken in stride. That is evidence they don’t just happen when visitors are in the room. That brings me joy.

Stop. Drop. Listen. (18/365)

one person taking notes while another speaks

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

I started a meeting with silence last week. We’re not talking the usual, mildly uncomfortable moment of silence that comes up every once in a while. Instead, I started this meeting with seven minutes of silence.

I’d drafted an idea for a team of teachers at one of our schools and decided to present it for their consideration in a way requiring no presentation.

“Okay, instead of talking this through, without talking, I’d like you to review the document and put all of your questions and comments in the margins as they come up.” A couple of the teachers looked at me to discern if I was on the up and up. I assured them I was. About 30 seconds in, one teacher said, “Well, here’s the thing…”

“Just put it in the margin,” I said, impressed at myself for not taking the bait of conversation.

They typed, I watched.

They typed some more, I watched some more.

I read as they as they added every question and comment that entered their heads.

Maybe two minutes into the process, I noted one of the teachers was inserting comments I’d classify as having a critical tone. From her first comment to her position midway down the first page, each time she hit option+command+m, the result was a reason why what I was proposing would not work. It continued this way for the remainder of the seven minutes. Though I’d told myself I was presenting a draft document and had said aloud to the room that I wanted to show them something we could make representative of the team, I was getting defensive.

As I scrolled through the comment, the voice in my head responded with Yeah, buts and Here’s what you don’t understands. She was missing the point of what I’d created.

By the time we hit the 7-minute mark, it was all I could do to stick with my plan and say, “Okay, now how would you like to proceed?” Others in the room started the conversation and kept driving. While I engaged and listened to their thinking, I was always half-listening for my critic to chime in. It took a while until she added her voice.

When she did, it wasn’t to voice one of the criticisms or reasons why one of the ideas would not work. It was to ask a question and then another to get clarity of the way everything might proceed. In fact, not once in the entirety of the conversation did she give direct voice to the ideas she’d written in the comments. Instead, I noticed she was making each comment into a question, searching for clarity and help thinking through how what I’d proposed might be made to work with their students.

The more I listened to what she was adding to the conversation, the more I realized she wasn’t the foe I’d assumed she’d be as I was reading her comments. She was an ally. She was an ally who’d done exactly what I’d asked and thrown her initial thinking into the document, shared what her gut told her would be hurdles to overcome in shifting the way the team had been doing things.

What I’d read as pessimism and inertia was this teacher trusting me and trusting the process. While I’d been preparing for battle, she’d been preparing to question, think, and learn.

My assumptions – the very same things I’d been asking these teachers to keep in check – almost derailed my ability to hear and understand what this teacher and her colleagues were bringing to the table. Much of my job is to listen. Part of the benefit of having a set of responsibilities different from those of teachers is my ability to come at conversations and difficulties fresh and open. Instead, I’d walked into the process in the same defensive posture I’m often working to help teachers move away from in our work.

I’m glad I caught myself. I’m glad I was able to stop, drop my assumptions, and listen.

I Hate Little Buts

Cigarettes - I hate cigarettes, but it's so good. :)

One of the first rules of improv – the most important rule of improv – is to embody a sense of “Yes, and…” Chris and I wrote about it in our book, and this post served as the early draft of that chapter. Sit in a conversation with me for any decent span of time, and you’ll hear me say it. Sit a little longer, and you’ll hear me say it again. I can’t stop myself.

What you won’t know is how often I hear it in my head while I listen to others speak. A colleague in a brainstorming session in the office may respond to someone else’s idea, “Yes that’s a possibility, but here’s why it won’t work…” My brain, fills in the but with an and and begins to imagine where that brainstorm could have gone. It also wonders how the person with that initial idea heard the response. Did she hear what linguists say is actually happening when a but is deployed and process the response as actually not agreeing with her idea?

My Pavlovian response to the little buts sometimes gets me in trouble when I’m faced with a big but. A few weeks ago, when editing a piece of writing from a colleague, I went on a replacing rampage and suggested the removal of every but he’d used throughout the draft. Having satisfied my compulsion, I sent the draft back.

A day later, the next draft arrived in my inbox. All of the little but-to-and revisions had been accepted. Midway through the piece, a comment, “These ideas don’t go together. If I use and here, people are going to think I support the bad policy I mention first, and the more appropriate policy I pose after the but.” He was right. In my flurry of ands, I’d obsessed with form and ignored function.

The answer is moderation. Each of the other edits I’d made set a tone of unity of ideas. The new ands pulled concepts together and tore at false dichotomies. That last but, the one that stayed, wasn’t little. It was deployed to draw attention to why a common misconception needn’t be so in readers’ minds.

This is the danger of Pavlovian responses. We hear the bell ring, but nothing is in the dog bowl. In my instance, I’d become so accustomed to the frequent mindless use of language that I began mindlessly dismissing what they were saying. Not everything is a little but. Some buts are big and necessary. As is the case with so many words, when used without thought, buts used without thought can also start to be buts used without meaning.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

The Easiest Thing We Learn from the Classroom May Be the Thing We Teach Worst

This is funny on so many levels.

Whatever your training was or has been in a classroom space, that’s the easiest skill to transfer to other spaces. If we are doing it decently, our classrooms offer spaces for the free exchange of ideas. If we’re doing it a little better, those ideas are new to many of the people in the room. If we’re operating in the top percentiles, those ideas are being pushed, pulled, and resisted in ways that leave everyone thinking, feeling heard, and knowing they were cared for.

Executing that last one is difficult. What’s easy is the transference of whatever habits of conversation are the mode for a learning space into other spaces as well.

You’ve maybe in meetings with folks who answer every suggestion with why it won’t work, why you’re wrong, and why the whole effort is doomed from the start. Rome is burning, they’ll tell you. This is Rome, the’ll claim. While there’s surely a mode of conversation these people experienced within their homes that could align with what you’re experiencing, we’ve seen enough of the power of school to know that it is a path that could have shifted long before they became professional buzzkills.

Teaching in FL, this was one of the key components of setting the best expectations of what we would collectively establish as our classroom culture. We’d talk to each other in ways that recognized the human foibles of the other people and took the stance that all ideas were worth our examination. (When working with 8th graders, I may have phrased it differently, but that was the underlying concept.)

At SLA, it was built into two of the school’s three rules – respect others & respect that this is a place of learning. If those are the guidelines and you begin to build practices around it, buzz kills in training can start to explore social career paths. Over the years, many students walked through the door suspect of the kinds of things we were asking them to do at SLA. They were suspect of working with other students, and for many, it was the first time they were asked to interact in interdependent ways with people from backgrounds different from their own.

And that was the work. That’s what it means to focus on citizenship. We’re in an election year, so it bears repeating. The little things we do like helping students think about how they talk to and about one another and how they discuss new and different ideas matter in ways that can corrode or build up a community or a republic more deeply than an economic policy that runs afoul.

How we talk to one another, now, as adults, was the easiest thing of our classroom experiences to pull forward into adulthood, and it can be one of the most difficult things to change once we’re here.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

81/365 Listen to Understand

Faculty meetings can be fascinating places.

Sit in the corner o f a faculty meeting of any given school, just listen, take a few notes, and you’ll be able to say much about what goes on in that school’s classrooms based on what you see.

Author Robert Fulghum writes about his time as a teacher and how he will go down in the history of his school as the guy who tried to kill himself with a pencil to get out of a faculty meeting. To be sure, in no other setting does a pencil present itself as a weapon as in a faculty meeting.

This needn’t be so. One important skill to put into practice for transforming school culture among faculty is to practice assuming positive intent.

Another tool, equally as powerful, and perhaps more important, is that of listening to understand.

In the schools we need, adults listen to one another to understand. They listen to the children with this goal as well. If what we want for students we must want for teachers as well, then it makes sense to begin with the teachers.

Listening to understand is not a new concept by any means. For many, it is as simple as Atticus Finch’s advise in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

This may seem like a long and drawn out process, trying to figure out all of the things contribute to a person’s thinking and then attempting to take on that perspective. If you were trying to do this for each member of a faculty, you’d likely retire before you’d completed the project.

Instead, listening to understand means marshalling the forces of focus and curiosity to truly hear what another person is attempting to communicate. It means hearing not only what they are audibly saying but moving from those initial utterances to questions that show that you were listening and want to understand at a deeper level.

Here, too, community will be co-created. Building understanding of those we work with helps us to understand how their goals, needs, and drives find common cause with our own goals, needs, and drives.

To listening to understand can take many paths, to get started, though, here are a few suggestions:

Look and listen. It’s commonly known that the majority of communication is transmitted through non-verbal means. If you were are truly listening to understand, you must listen with all of your senses. Pay attention to physical cues being sent your way.

Ask. So often, our gut instinct in conversation when others are trying to explain themselves or make a point is to react with a statement of agreement or disagreement. If we take an extra beat, consider the information we have, and ask the next logical question, then the conversation and our understanding will be all the better for it.

Say what you think you heard. In any line of communication, there is interference in the form of mishearing, getting distracted, or pouring our own thoughts into the process. By taking a moment to say to the person you’re seeking to understand, “Here’s what I think I just heard you say…” we open the path for clarification.

Listening to understand is different than listening to hear. While both are preferrable to remaining quiet until it is your turn to talk, listening to understand has the benefit of developing purpose that is specific to those to whom we are listening.

Are you listening to understand or just waiting to teach?

A few days ago, for a moment of levity before a more principled discussion, we watched the video below in one of my seminars.

It got me thinking, about how the segment was framed. The idea, here, is to think of Hicks as an ignorant, foolish, nonsensical man. As much as a vehemently and completely disagree with his stance on these issues, I still felt compelled to listen to Hicks.
He’s sharing more than racism when he speaks. To miss that is to miss an opportunity. Since the seminar, I’ve been thinking about how most people’s experiences watching the video are similar to the experiences of many teachers as their students file in to classrooms across the country.
“We have to teach these people. They think they know, but they don’t know. We need to change their minds. Scour that ignorance right out.”
Except that’s wrong.
As much as I want Hicks and others like him to change their minds, I don’t understand them. I don’t comprehend how or why they think the things they do.
The same was true in the classroom. While I had legions of standards and understandings I wanted my students to leave my classroom possessing, I had to restrain myself from attempting to immediately pass them along. It wouldn’t have worked.
I had to work to understand those students before I was going to be able to teach them. How were the knots in their thinking tied? What was necessary for me to loosen those knots? It was frustrating work at times. It was important work all the time.
When I meet with the student teachers I’m supervising this semester, one of my most frequent post-observation questions is, “What do you know about student X?” If the answer is a collection of facts about quiz scores, homework return, and time on task in class, we dig more deeply.
If, as teachers, we’re not working to understand the people in our care, we’re doing it wrong. If as people, we’re not working to understand those with whom we disagree, any success in changing their minds won’t last long.

Finally, no one cares what I think

The Gist:

  • Presentations of classwork usually end up with me being talked at and 30 disinterested teenagers trying to hang on.
  • Giving the students “evaluations” to fill out generally smells of busywork.
  • By putting approval power in the hands of my students, I’ve seen a complete turnaround in how work is being presented in class.

The Whole Story:

When we talk about authentic learning in the classroom, we usually mean almost-authentic learning in the classroom. When we talk about giving our students authentic audiences for their work, we usually mean finding places for their work to live should the right audience happen by. I’ve done this before and likely will do this again. Sometimes, it’s all I can manage.

With the CtW project this year, I’m trying something new. Though I’m calling this Phase II, it’s really Phase III or IV. First, students individually researched problems/issues in which they were interested. Then, I broke them into affinity groups based on similarities of their respective issues. Then, I told them to compare what they understood as the causes of their problems and find one element common to all of their issues where they could apply singular pressure as a cooperative unit to affect change across issues.

We’re in it now.

Friday, the groups started pitching their ideas to their classmates. That sentence makes it sound like traditional group presentations – the kind I worked for about 30 seconds to stay focused on as a student.

I hated those moments.

Instead, each group’s progression to their next phase depends on garnering unanimous approval from their classmates. When I ask if they’ve gotten to a point at which we as a community are ready to set them loose as representatives of our class and our school, every hand must go up.

Thus far, two groups have presented. Neither has made it through the gauntlet. The work they’ve presented thus far has been some of the highest quality, most inclusive of any group presentations I’ve seen. They know what they’re talking about, they care about what they’re proposing and they know their audience matters. Still, I’ve agreed with both votes. It’s not quite where it could be. I agree with what they’re saying.

While they’re presenting, no one talks to me. Even better, the audience is talking back.

During Q&A after the presentations, I have to wait to be called upon. That never happens.

The groups know my vote doesn’t matter. In fact, I don’t get a vote.

The audience knows they have a say in what they’re seeing and they’re reading the presentations as texts to be questioned and challenged.

When a group presents a 2-minute PSA about the dangers and effects of inhumane acts, the class doesn’t give them a bye because their video was good but their plan for implementation of their ideas was shoddy. They know the bells and whistles and they don’t care.

After each vote, the class heads to a Google Form where they rate the groups’ effectiveness at meeting expectations for the presentations across SLA’s benchmark rubric categories.

At the end, the students must answer the question, “What suggestions do you have for improving the pitch? What questions are still lingering in your mind?”

Most of the time we talk about authentic learning and giving our kids an audience, we’re ignoring the authenticity and audience within our own classrooms. We’re so interested in giving them new places to be listened to, we don’t ask them to listen to each other – we don’t give them reasons to. That’s important.

After typing up my comments, I send them via e-mail to each group along with the link to the sheet of a Google Spreadsheet with all of their peers’ feedback.

They’ll be using the feedback to improve their presentations and gear up for round two.

Admittedly, I’m watching the unanimity idea closely. I’m fairly certain the class will recognize when a presentation has proven it’s muster, but I’m paying attention just in case.

To my mind, this process stands somewhere between the peer editing I’ve seen in Writers’ Workshops and peer review in the submission of scholarly work.

Most importantly, I’m far from the most important person in the room when the kids are talking and holding one another accountable.