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.

The Forever Teacher

A regulation MLB baseball sits on my desk in a plexiglass cube. It is accompanied by a ticket stub from the game of its provinence – May 12, 2001 Reds vs. Astros, Cinergy Field, Aisle 105, Row 10, Seat 2.

I wasn’t at the game. I didn’t catch the ball, nor was it tossed to me by one of the players during batting practice.

The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

The ball has a signature on it. I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at it – Scooter Gennett #11. The S in Scooter is fashioned to look like a lightning bolt. The rest of the text is in the cursive of a young hand.

Scooter was 11 at the time. He’s 25 now and playing pro ball for the Milwaukee Brewers. When he handed me the cube at the end of my first year of teaching, he was just finishing 8th grade. The ball means something to me because it meant something to him and he handed it to me, I’ve always believed, to fill the space between us when our year as teacher and student ended and he headed off to his last four years before being a professional baseball player.

This ball has made 5 moves across as many states, and it lives near the box of things I’ll grab on my way out of the house in the event of a fire.

Scooter, or Ryan as I insisted on calling him, gives me the tremendous gift of knowing where he is and what he’s up to by way of being in the public spotlight.

This past weekend, I got to share a couple of meals with former students while I was in Philadelphia for ISTE. A recent education grad, an employee of the city, another college grad on his way to a pottery studio to make his art, a film-turned-communication major, and a neurobiology major who might want to be an engineer or a dentist.

We sat at these meals and I shared as briefly as possible what I’ve been up to since we’d last met. Then, I got to find out who they’d become in these newest versions of themselves. They are beautiful. They are tremendous. They give me hope for the People we will become – together.

I don’t know what it was like to teach students with whom I couldn’t connect after they’d left my classroom. I find it difficult to imagine a world where I don’t get to see status updates of their growings and mistakes, their discoveries and setbacks. Simply saying goodbye at the end of 180 days is a foreign idea.

I’d be able to find Ryan, sorry – Scooter – with a google search no matter what. To be able to shoot out a message when I’m coming to town and be able to sit down and hear about their lives first-hand, though, that is an affordance of the modern world.

What’s more, it speaks to the communities I hope schools will be. More than once, I’ve said to parting students, “Let me know what you need, and I’ll do my best to help you out. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been.” I’ve meant it every time.

Perhaps that’s a part of the new contract that’s written between teachers and students rather than districts and unions. The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

That’s a world I want to live in, and it’s what I want to model. I want my students to know I’ll be here. I want them to see that as a way of caring for those around them.

Yes, to those who read these words and worry about boundaries, perhaps this approach invites difficult conversations about what I can’t do to help students. It’s true. When I think about those students I’ve lost or the world has lost after I’m no longer their teacher, though, I’d much rather have the difficult conversation than grieve a life that might have been.

Much is made of the importance of lifelong learners. This weekend, and this baseball sitting on my desk, make me wonder if we’re not missing a chance to think about lifelong teachers.

Things I Know 302 of 365: Begin with the end in mind

I want our students to be thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind.

– Chris Lehmann

I asked Codman Academy’s Co-Founder and Executive Director Meg Campbell what she hoped for the school’s graduates. She said the following:

They know how to learn and ask for help.

They know about their passions.

They have a big dream and a plan for it.

They are engaged members of society.

They have a healthy life and relationships.

They are life-long learners.

That’ll do.

Things I Know 241 of 365: We’ve been talking about this for a while

There is no book I know of that shows so well what a free and humane education can be like, nor is there a more eloquent description of its philosophy.

– Herbert Kohl on The Lives of Children

For A-107 this week, we read a few chapters from George Dennison’s The Lives of Children. Dennison writes about the pedagogy and practice of The First Street School. I’ve read the book before as part of my teacher preparation, but haven’t visited it since then.

I’m glad I did.

It reminded me how beautiful the relationships between caring adults attending to the needs of children caring teachers attending to the needs and personhoods of students can be.

It also left me a bit saddened.

Dennison was writing 50 years ago about what schools can be and how we can most humanely treat children. He was writing half a century ago and still we have stories of school-regulated caste systems based on test performance. And so, I thought it important to type up and stow away some of the bits and pieces of Dennison that resonated most with me as I read. I’ll archive them in the cloud and pull them out when I need to be reminded of what we can do and how we can care for kids.

The closer one comes to the faces of life, the less exemplary they seem, but the more human and the richer. (p. 5)

Learning, in its essentials, is not a distinct and separate process. It is a function of growth. (p. 5)

We might cease thinking of school as a place, and learn to believe that is is basically relationships: between children and adults, adults and adults, children and other children. (p. 7)

We did not give report cards. We knew each child, knew his capacities and his problems, and the vagaries of his growth. This knowledge could not be recorded on little cards. The parents found – again – that they approved of this. It diminished the blind anxieties of life, for grades ha never meant much to them anyway except some dim sense of problem, or some dim sense reassurance that things were all right. (p. 8)

They had discovered each other – and had discovered themselves – in more richly human terms. (p. 11)

Motivated, of course, means eager, alive, curious, responsive, trusting, persistent; and its not as good a word as any of these. (p. 13)

Rousseau: The most useful rule of education is this: do not save time, but lost it. (p. 13)

Now what is so precious about a curriculum (which no one assimilates anyway), or a schedule of classes (which piles boredom upon failure and failure upon boredom) that these things should supersede the actual needs of the child? (p. 17)

…by accepting her needs precisely as needs, we diminished them; in supporting her powers, in all their uniqueness, we allowed them to grow. (p. 18)

But let me replace the word “freedom” with more specific terms: 1) we trusted that some true organic bond existed between the wishes of the children and their actual needs, and 2) we acceded to their wishes (though certainly not to all of them), and thus encouraged their childish desiring to take on the qualities of decision-making. (p. 21)

We read of statistics and percentages, and are told that learning is the result of teaching, which it never is and never was. We hear of new trends in curriculum and in the training of teachers, and of developments in programmed instruction – of everything, in short, but the one true object of all this activity: the children themselves. (p. 33)

School was not a parenthesis inserted within life, but was actually an intensified part of life. (p. 33)

Why is it, then that so many children fail? Let me put it bluntly: it is because our system of public education is a horrendous, life-destroying mess. (p. 74)

It can be stated axiomatically that the schoolchild’s chief expense of energy is self-defense against the environment. When this culminates in impairment of growth – and it almost always does – it is quite hopeless to reverse at the trend by teaching phonics instead of Look-Say. The environment itself must be changed. (p. 80)

Would growth be possible – indeed, would there be a world at all – if the intake of the young were restricted to those things deliberately offered them by adults? (p. 83)

We cannot raise children to be free men by treating them like little robots; we cannot produce adult democrats by putting children in lock step and placing all decisions in the hands of authorities (p. 88)

I know that in the course of our lessons I committed errors and God knows how many omissions, yet this physical base was so important and so reliable that it provided all kinds of leeway. It took the sting (though not the seriousness) out of my rebukes, it expressed a concern I could not have put into words, it gave a reality and continuity to sessions which were sometimes of the most ephemeral content. If one single formula were capable of curing the ills of our present methods of education, it would be this physical formula: bring the bodies back. (p. 169)

Dennison, G. (1999) The lives of children: The story of the First Street School. New York, NY: Boynton/Cook

Things I Know 229 of 365: I’ve seen Problem-Based Learning from the other side

It takes half your life before you discover life is a do-it-yourself project.

– Napoleon Hill

I just turned in my second statistics assignment. I should note (and I’m sorry Mr. Curry), when I took statistics during undergrad it became a sad march toward intellectual self-destruction. I hesitate to say intellectual, but the professor certainly attempted to steer my thinking that direction.

More often, my thinking was, “How does this count as math? I know calculus. How is this math?”

It wasn’t pretty.

My current statistics professor came with glowing reviews – from everyone. Everyone.

And he’s fantastic.

A lecture hall can be a stuffy space.

A statistics course can be a stuffy space.

The intersection is potentially numbing.

Not with Terry Tivnan.

In a course explicitly designed with the beginner in mind, Professor Tivnan works to set a pace and climate that has yet to have me feeling out of my depth.

Given the laughter and applause that pepper our classes, I’d say my classmates are in a similar situation.

And then the assignment came.

Now, remember, I have been teaching in an inquiry-driven, project-based school for the last for years and another school for two years before that that was doing those things, but didn’t think to say so. Not only is this learning I believe in, it’s learning I’ve assigned as well.

Until recently, it hadn’t been learning I’d experienced. Seems appropriate I dove into the process in a field for which I’ve less natural predilection.

Without going too deeply into details, our assignment gave us two data sets, some information about national trends regarding that data, and asked us to compare the data and write up a report for a fictional school board regarding our findings.

That’s it. No one outlined steps. No one said this is the information you must report.

“How are these two things related, and what does that mean?” we were asked.

It hurt my brain.

A lot.

Unclear as to how to approach the problems and feeling the wait of my mathematical past, I avoided the assignment for as long as I could.

I worked to help classmates make sense of the work, while avoiding my own.

And then I realized what he had done.

He wanted us to own the process. I’ll get nowhere if I have to look to an authority each time I need to decide when and how to use a “z score” or the importance of a weighted mean. I needed to own it.

The process needed to be mine.

Now, these are things I’ve professed for years. I’ve stood in front of audiences and classrooms and argued the importance of this kind of learning.

Here’s the thing – it’s tough.

As incredibly difficult as shaping a lesson or unit plan for problem-based learning may be, learning that way is incredibly difficult.

From several classmates I heard cries of, “Why won’t he just tell us what he wants or what to do?”

I’d heard that before.

“But how do I do it, Mr. Chase?”

As supportive as I’d meant to be, I never truly understood the difficulty involved in adapting new habits of learning.

I expect it’ll get easier – not quickly – as we’re expected to do more on our own with the knowledge and understandings we’re acquiring.

For this go ‘rough, it was tough. I need to remember that.

Things I Know 123 of 365: I teach students who learn

By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.

– George Carlin

A friend recently told me about another teacher who was explaining the merits of her school and listed among them the fact that the faculty referred to the children in their care as “learners” rather than students. The implication was that such a shift in language meant the students were learning more now that they’d a clearer idea of their role in the building.

Thank goodness we’ve got that cleared up.

I like student and its history. Sure, a student is one who studies. The real fun comes from the etymology of study. Traced back, it finds its roots in the Latin studere meaning “to be diligent.”

I want that for those in my classroom.

I’m a fan of learner as well. Coming from learn, it finds its home in the Proto-Germanic liznojan meaning “to follow or find the track.”

I want that for those in my classroom as well.

To help them be both diligent and follow the track, I’ve drafted a schedule. Mondays and Wednesdays, I’ll use “learner when referring to my kids. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll call them students.

Fridays will alternate. E-mails and other correspondences will adhere to the schedule depending on the date they were first drafted.

I’m sure that will improve the learning (and studying).


Maybe it doesn’t matter what I call my kids.

Or, it matters, but not quite as much as how and why I teach them.

I can see the draw of shifting the language of the classroom to learner. It provides modern window dressing to teaching. When the roof’s leaking, though, I’m not so certain how much time we have to admire the curtains.

I’ll put it in the same category as claims of wanting to good for children and reform education, but making no mention of pedagogy.

From time to time, I will call my students “writers,” “readers,” or “thinkers.” Sometimes, I’ll refer to them as all three in quick succession.

On particularly boisterous mornings, I will refer to them as “beautiful people.”

I’ve even been known to refer to a mass of 33 high school students as “hey.”

While I understand a close reading of any of my classroom rhetoric could produce some interesting theses as to my relationship with my kids, it won’t get you to an understanding of my pedagogy.

This was my worry as my friend told the story of the faculty and its learners. It is a gesture, and gestures can be funny things. Magicians will use gestures to divert your attention from what they’re really doing, and docents will use gestures to help guide you on the correct path.

I’ve no room for more educational magicians.

I’m all for those who are diligently helping our students learn.