Discovering the Illusion of Understanding: Reflections from Dr. Marc Schwartz

In this blog post, Dr. Marc Schwartz, Professor of Mind, Brain and Education draws on his experience as a former science teacher to pose questions about learning and not learning. 

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Dr. Marc Schwartz is Professor of Mind, Brain and Education at The University of Texas at Arlington.

Many of you have taken physical science in middle school, and some of you likely took science again in high school.  How often do you look back on your experience and find opportunities where you can draw some knowledge from those courses to answer a question.  For example: is it possible to light a flashlight bulb with one battery and only one wire?  If all the ice at the North Pole melted would the sea level rise?  Would a cruise liner float in a bathtub just big enough to hold it?

As a former middle and high school science teacher I look back on my experience with questions of my own. What exactly did my students learn?  How useful was the experience to them then and now? I didn’t get any sense of an answer until four after I had started teaching when one day I happen to looked into a drawer full of standardized tests that I had collected during my first four years.

During this period I had earned a masters degree in science education, attended all the workshops and professional development opportunities the district offered me. I had taken courses during the summer, participated in NSF projects on teaching and learning, and integrated the latest technology in my classes to conduct experiments, collect and analyze data with students.  The superintendent had even asked a visiting professor of education to visit my classroom.

Later I found out that the professor told the superintendent that my lesson was a model lesson.  So as I looked at the collection of tests I recognized my first educational research question and hypothesis: As I felt confident that my teaching had improved, shouldn’t I see an improvement in student scores over those four years?

You might be thinking what I was thinking, of course. As my school used Scantron forms for standardized tests, it was easy to calculate average scores for every test over every year.  The numbers were stunning, so much so that I had to run the calculations again.  The overall average scores had not changed by more than one or two percent in four years on the same tests, which included increases and decreases.  I didn’t need a background in statistics to realize that in my very best classes students were not benefiting from what I had learned.  In fact, it appeared that I was the only one learning science in my classroom.

More dramatically, we all appeared to have been participating in a complicated play called, School Life. While I was pretending to teach, my students were pretending to learn.  Of course, none of us realized we were part of a play. We were simply performing in the roles that we had learned to play as students first and teachers later.  We all wanted to do our very best, and eventually our acting had become real to us.

Although I was very disappointed with the findings, I also became very interested in understanding how this natural experiment went awry.  It took many years to figure out the answer, and you can get a glimpse of that answer in an article I recently wrote.  Follow the link here to read the article, “Khan Academy: The illusion of understanding” and then scroll down to access the PDF (2013):

http://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/364/60

Note: Dr. Schwarz’s related ideas to the above article can also be found in the following video where he discusses “Online Education: Can MBE Meaningfully Inform the Conversation

What are your thoughts? We welcome your comments below.

Seven Habits That Create Great Teachers and Students: Advice from Aubrey Steinbrink

AubreyIn the last year, I have found myself searching for something new.  Something that will allow me to share my teaching wins to help other teachers and students to be more successful, satisfied, and efficient in their work.  One of the things I came across was Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective People.  After reading this book, I realized that to become the teacher I have always wanted to be, I must harness these habits, teach these habits and overcome the obstacles that keep me from fully being these habits.

As teachers, I know we are already doing these things, I just wanted to share what I believe it looks like through a teacher’s eyes and how we help students capture these habits.  Here are some of my discoveries and reflections.

#1 Be Proactive: Make things happen. 

As a teacher: The craft of teaching has changed dramatically since my college years (which was not that long ago).  I stalk the aisles of Barnes and Noble to find the latest book with the new promise of great teaching strategies.  We are very lucky right now to be in such a social media frenzy that I find new ideas from Twitter Professional Learning Networks, blog posts, and innovative colleagues.  This is being proactive.  The idea that if it works, don’t fix it- doesn’t really pertain to a proactive person.  I believe that it is important to try something new, make it fresh for you- It might end up being better.

As a student:  It is important for a teacher to help students become proactive and learn how to analyze their data or their writing to find out what they can do to make things better.  Asking the right questions will end up getting a student to problem solve on their own and lead them towards making things happen. reach goal

 

#2 Begin with the end in mind

As a teacher: The systems approach in my school district has allowed me to embrace this idea whole heartedly.  At the beginning of the year, we set our SMART goal, write our mission, and create our personal goals based on the school’s Continuous Improvement Plan. The state tests and TEKS lay out exactly what the end is.  Keeping that end in mind, helps me plan strategies, short cycle assessments and push my students toward the end expectation way before that expectation arrives.

As a student: At the beginning of the year, students write their very own SMART goal, and in my classroom they also create Action Plans that list the steps toward their end goal.  To be a successful teacher, in my eyes, we must teach our students to become goal setters. If the students know what their end goal is and have a plan, we are teaching them life skills to thrive.

#3 Put first things first

As a teacher: This year, I started posting our daily objectives in the room.  We have a weekly goal or plan that the students see, but it is this daily objective board that allows them to visualize the end.  Each day is broken down into the parts that they will need to be able to do to reach the overall plan.  This is also something that I use to keep my daily plans visual for me- I get ahead of myself sometimes, but this is a great way to keep me on task and focused.

As a student:  The action plans that I had my students create after our district benchmark helped them put first things first.  They were able to list their most important areas of concern based on their percentages on their test.  Their step by step action plan, makes this a concrete and reachable goal.

#4 Think Win-Win

As a teacher:  This habit does not mean that everyone deserves a ribbon.  This simply means find a way to make sure everyone benefits.  As teachers, we do this every day by differentiating in the classroom, accommodating, and modifying lesson plans so every student wins in the learning process.  This also means, that teachers need to collaborate and have a dialogue about the amazing things occurring in the classroom.  Sharing your successes allows all teachers to win because of a strategy or an idea they didn’t think of.  We are all on the same team (our students’).

As a student: We are teaching our students to learn how to collaborate with each other every day through think-pair-share, reciprocal teaching, team-pair-solo, and group/partner work. If we don’t teach students how to negotiate, collaborate and come up with beneficial solutions we are doing them a disservice. They are allowed to fail in our classroom, they are not allowed too many failures in the real world.covey

#5 Seek first to understand then to be understood- being mindful in a conversation

As a teacher- A teacher-leader must be approachable if they plan on being a successful one.  Teachers build relationships with their students when they listen and take what they heard and use it.  My students share their obstacles, their triumphs, and their concerns with me throughout the year.  This is the same idea that we need to bring to each other/colleagues.  I think it is very important that teachers start a dialogue, but the dialogue needs to be a safe environment without judgments. The type of dialogue I am talking about is one that is filled with encouragement, problem solving and collaboration.

As a student- Even in 6th grade, students want to be heard.  They want to share what they got for their birthday, what they did over the weekend, and even their hopes and dreams.  It is important to give students this time in class to share.  They can do this during their team-pair-solo strategies, reciprocal teaching conversations, group assignments, partner work, and the opportunities that build connections to text. Teaching students how to listen first is going to be such a magical ingredient in their futures. Some of the greatest strategies is teaching them to be mindful.

#6 Synergize- Work Together

As a teacher- For some reason, this habit is by far one of my most important habits.  As I look at the last few years, the times I learned the most about myself, my classroom, and my teaching was during these opportunities to synergize.  Working together allows collaboration to occur.  I am grateful for the professional learning communities I have become a part of through Twitter, school, and my masters’ courses.  I have learned a lot about teaching and about myself.

As a student- Some of the most challenging times has been when my students were asked to collaborate and work together.  This is when I see their mindsets either become fixed or grow.  It is important that students get the opportunity to build together and become unified.  Some of the greatest teambuilding activities are on my Pinterest board. quote

#7 Sharpen the Saw- Renewal and continuous improvement

As a teacher- After the day is done, this is the time to reflect and renew.  Without the weekend, the evening or our summer to do this, I believe teachers would be hamsters on a wheel- just turning.  We all need this time to walk away.  My Friday plans never look like my actual Monday plans.  I feel sorry for my interventionist because I have an idea of how the next week will go, but over the weekend everything changes.  Because I have time to renew and reflect, instead of just going through the motions.

As a student- This year, I started giving my students 30-40 minutes of reading in class.  Some days they start their class with reading or they end their class time with reading.  I never ask anything from them- just read, get comfortable, and read.  This is their renewal and reflection time.  I have more readers this year than ever before.  I think they genuinely love to read again.  I have also taught them how to meditate in a mindful way to help their minds prepare for the long testing day.

Every one of these habits alone can create excellence, but all 7 together make an effective leader.  1-3 are habits meant for only the leader, 4-7 are meant to be interacted with someone else.  That says a lot.  There is no I in TEAM or SUCCESS.

I don’t have a handle on all of these habits yet, but I am working towards that goal.

If you have become a leader on your campus or in your school district, what has worked for you?

 

Advice from Aspen Christine Johnson Ham: Environmental and Spatial Technology Teacher

Aspen is a 2011 graduate of our teacher education program at The University of Texas at Arlington. She shares below her ideas about 21st century learning and her unique role as a teacher of Environmental and Spatial Technology. What advanced technology tools do you want to learn more about?  -Dr. Semingson

“Students are expected to find problems in their community or our world and solve them using advanced technology.”

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Aspen Christine Johnson Ham, UTA graduate (2011) facilitates student learning with use of advanced technology.

Being an EAST Facilitator is a very unique job. EAST is an acronym for Environmental and Spatial Technology. Students are expected to find problems in their community or our world and solve them using advanced technology. Our classroom is stocked with top of the line technology including professional grade software, video cameras, Macs and PCs, an Oculus Rift, two 3d printers, arduinos, raspberry pis and more.

There is no prescribed curriculum. Ideas are student generated. It is my job to facilitate their ideas into a viable project. EAST exists for grades K-12 depending on the district. I work with 5th and 6th graders. My classroom is literally controlled chaos as each student or group of students depending on the project are all working on something different at all times. Additionally, students are expected to work on projects with or for a community partner that they find and contact.

In a typical class period we might have 2-4 community members coming to meet with students, a Google Hangout going on with another group who contacted a company across the country all while other students are actively collaborating or calling their community partner on the phone. As you can imagine, this is a 100% student driven classroom. This is the first year our intermediate campus has offered EAST. As a result our core teachers have commented students enrolled in EAST have developed their critical thinking skills and are much more open to solve challenging problems in class.

The most challenging part of my job is allowing students to have control. Sometimes a student will pitch an idea for a project and I think in my head “Oh, this is going nowhere.”.…Then the student takes the initiative because I did a good job facilitating their thinking and it turns out to be an awesome project and a really meaningful experience for that student. For example: One of my students mentioned to me she was almost in a car accident with her dad because someone didn’t see a stop sign. She decided she wanted to get flashing stops signs put in across the city of Hot Springs. After more research she determined that this might not be doable at every single intersection and narrowed her focus to the stop signs in front of our school. She contacted the city and set up a meeting. After meeting with the city and finding out it would cost $2,000 to put in a stop sign, I suggested she program one herself. The city agreed to provide the sign and maintain the solar batteries and panels if she would code a circuit.

Currently, this 5th grade student is working to program an arduino and estimates the total cost to the district per flashing stop sign will be $100-$150. Originally when she suggested the project to me I thought it wasn’t very involved because I figured she would just call the city and they would agree or disagree to fund a flashing stop sign in this area. By effectively facilitating this project she is not only going to install something to make our school safer, she is also saving the district money and has found an opportunity to applying coding and electronics to a real life situation.

We welcome your comments below! -Dr. Semingson

Advice from Dr. Marla Robertson: Expanding your Professional Learning Network (PLN)

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Dr. Marla Robertson, Literacy Studies faculty, shares her experience and advice about expanding your professional learning network and finding your own learning opportunities.

I remember accepting my first teaching job after I had completed my degree. I was fortunate enough to be hired at the school where I had done my student teaching, so I was familiar with the school and the district. I felt like I was ready to have my own classroom, but I also knew there was a lot to learn.

I went into this first year with an attitude of learning and began to connect with teachers, the instructional specialist, the librarian, the special education teachers and many others that were a part of the school in which I worked. Whenever the school or district offered an opportunity to learn about something new, I was there. I was a sponge, soaking up anything that I could about teaching at this school.

I have learned over the years that this was good practice, but there were many other resources that I could also have been connecting with that could have assisted me in my learning to be a better teacher.

Here are a few ideas on how to begin creating your own Professional Learning Network (PLN) to aid your journey to become the best educator you can be. My examples will be focused on literacy teachers, but you can find similar opportunities for any content.

  • First, get to know the specialists in your school and in your district. Most schools have people designated as instructional specialists for particular content areas. Part of their job is to assist teachers in their learning. Often there are district-level personnel that have this role. Learn about the resources that are available to you in your own school and district.
  • Join national professional organizations. If you are an elementary teacher, look for organizations that focus on professional learning for your grade level. If you are a content area teacher, look for organizations that specialize in providing resources to teachers in your content. Because I focus on reading, I chose to join the International Literacy Association (ILA). This organization provides many resources to teachers through journals, online resources, etc. (see literacyworldwide.org for more information). Also look into the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). This organization has amazing resources too (www.ncte.org).
  • Join local and state professional organizations and attend their conferences. There are often local groups of teachers that organize learning opportunities for teacher learning in your area. For example, for the north Texas area there is the North Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (NTCTELA). The state of Texas has the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language arts (tctela.org) and the Texas Association for Literacy Educators (www.texasreaders.org), state organizations that represent national organizations. NTCTELA holds a conference every year in the Metroplex on the second Friday in June. They bring in four or five nationally recognized experts in teaching to present keynotes and breakout sessions during the one-day conference. For a small registration fee you can learn from some of the most widely recognized experts in the country without having to travel too far from home. Sometimes you can get your district to cover the cost of your registration. It doesn’t hurt to ask! In 2016 this conference will be held on June 10th at the Hurst Conference Center (for more information, go to www.ntctela.org). The TCTELA conference for 2017 will be held in Fort Worth next January, right in our neighborhood!
  • Read professional journals. Most professional teacher organizations have one or more journals that have great articles with ideas for teaching. For example, ILA has The Reading Teacher and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, to name a few. These journals have amazing resources. You can get access to these journals through membership in the organization or through educational databases. NCTE also has journals as well as TCTELA and TALE. See if your district has access to these journals through subscriptions or through databases. If not, join the organization so you can get access for yourself. Many of the journals are available online.
  • Pay attention to what’s going on in the D/FW area (or your local geographical region) that may provide opportunities for you and your students. For example, another professional development opportunity in the area is the North Texas Teen Book Festival to be held in Irving on April 22 and 23. Check here for more information northtexasteenbookfestival.org. This opportunity is free. If you work with pre-adolescent or adolescent learners, this festival is a great opportunity to see what books are hot in 2016 and meet some amazing authors.

The first years of teaching are a challenge. Creating and expanding your PLN will help those years be productive and help you feel more prepared for your career as an amazing teacher!

What are your thoughts on Dr. Robertson’s advice? How can you create and expand your Professional Learning Network? -Dr. Semingson

Advice from Dr. Harrison McCoy: What Would I Do Differently If I Was Starting Again as an Educator?

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UTA Graduate Dr. Harrison McCoy, a previous guest blogger and award-winning teacher, shares his reflections on teaching.

What Would I Do Differently If I Was Starting Again as an Educator?

Pre-service teachers get a lot of advice about what to do when they are assigned their first classroom. Some of it will work and some of it is a total waste of time. So, when I sat down to consider what I would do differently if I were just starting my career as an educator today, I considered the advice that I had been given along the way.

I also thought about how much things have changed, and at the risk of sounding like that “get off my lawn” grandpa down the street, things are not what they used to be in the classroom. I am nearing the end of my 17th year as an educator and I am four years away from being eligible for retirement, so it seems an interesting thing to look in the rear view mirror with one eye on the road yet ahead.

Here’s a takeaway: When I started teaching in the mid-90s, I was an imitator of those around me. Now, I want to be an innovator, influencing those around me.

If I were starting over today…

  • I would become a better student of human nature. We have the opportunity to understand human development and behavior so much better today. A few years ago, as I was concluding my studies for a master of education degree at The University of Texas – Arlington, that institution unwrapped a new graduate degree in Mind, Brain and Education designed to explore the neurobiological and psychological activity of learning. Whether it is nature or nurture that determines it, students are not the same as they were 20 years ago. Educators face students with emotional and psychological issues that threaten their ability to learn and the teacher’s ability to teach. These issues are not resolved with conventional understanding of classroom management and discipline. Understanding human behavior is becoming as necessary as understanding content.
  • I would integrate inquiry-based learning into my instructional design. Inquiry-based learning, simply put, is based on posing questions that lead students to become adept at process learning. The alternative (and more traditional) approach often feeds students information and requires them to become adept at only memorization and repeating expected answers. No matter the content area or grade level, there is a place for inquiry because from the time we are born, we are seekers using our senses to discover. We have to learn not to learn that way.
  • I would learn how to coach and facilitate learning experiences instead of teaching. My students do not need me in order to learn. They have the ability to learn anywhere, anytime, and from anyone. I am privileged to get paid to facilitate that process and show them how. I help them establish connections and cultivate pathways that encourage their process.
  • I would emphasize learning and minimize grading. Our conventional classroom approach tends to teach students to focus on points and averages. Not all learning can be measured in a grade point average. I frequently pose this question to my students: “How much would you be willing to learn if I told you that you would not be graded on this material?” In the beginning, they laughed at me. They laugh less often today. Some of them are beginning to get it.
  • I would get comfortable with failure as a part of the learning process. When my students try and fail, they are encouraged to try again. Mistakes made while learning are not penalized. Almost all assessment is formative for me. I do not penalize for failure during the formative phase of learning. Summative outcomes are the result of struggle and improvement.
  • I would take control over my own professional development. There are so many ways that educators themselves can learn anywhere, anytime, and from anyone. I am absolutely not dependent on my district to help me become a better educator. My goal is to be better every day, and no one controls that better than I.

When I wrote my dissertation for my doctorate in the mid-80s, I did so on an IBM Selectric Typewriter, before there was a correcting tape inside. Now, when I publish this post, in a matter seconds educators on the other side of the world will read it. I am amazed at how much teaching has changed, but that change is bringing with it the most astonishing opportunities imaginable. Pre-service teachers who want to be amazing educators will have the chance to go where I cannot even dream, but they must learn to embrace the times.

What are your thoughts on looking backwards over your teaching career so far? Leave us your thoughts in the comment box below! -Dr. Semingson

Advice from Dr. David Sparks: “Confidence, Teacher Voice, and a Sacred Quest”

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Dr. David Sparks, Assistant Professor of Science Education and Faculty in the UTeach program at The University of Texas at Arlington, shares advice.

Confidence, Teacher Voice, and a Sacred Quest

“My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me! A day may come, when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of Fellowship, but it is not this day!”

~Aragorn, from The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Something that I notice quite often in new or developing teachers is a certain timidity that comes with their solo introduction to the classroom. It is the much-needed ability to square up the challenge and walk into any classroom confident and bold. In the case of teaching, you are not fighting Orcs, but the battle is for your classroom. Many teachers believe that size matters; you have to be a big 6’ 2” teacher with a booming voice and a scary gaze to take control of a classroom. But that is not the case. I have seen female teachers who are barely 5 ft tall stare down huge football players. I have also seen larger teachers that have been completely run over by the students. New teachers must show more confidence and grow their ability to take ownership of their classrooms.

But that is the paradox: With experience comes confidence and experience takes time (possibly years). I have a word of advice for you: Fake it until you make it! Just as a wild animal might sense fear, some students are looking for a weakness to attack and many teachers let their guard down much too fast. I do not subscribe to the adage “Don’t smile until Christmas.” However, I believe you have to be stricter at the beginning of the year. You have to let them know that in the classroom it is all business. That does not mean that you can’t have a sense of humor and joke with the students occasionally. But it does mean that they need to know when you “mean business.” That brings me to teacher voice.

You must project your speaking voice to the back of the room. A good teacher voice is somewhere between a natural speaking level and a yell. The best way to describe it is like carrying on a conversation in a crowded restaurant. It is something all new teachers have to develop. It takes practice and I suggest asking for outside evaluations of your teacher voice from fellow teachers, principals, and even a couple of students that you trust. Mix in a dash of politeness after getting their attention and you have a recipe for an effective and well-structured classroom.

Do not beg for their attention but let them know that you “need it.” It might go something like this: “Class I need your attention…eyes on me……(prolonged silence)…Table 3 I need to see your eyes….(more awkward silence)…Great. Thank for your attention. We need to discuss your group work.

What is the sacred quest? It is the sense that you have ownership in that classroom. It is your classroom, but you must build a culture of we. The students need to be proud to be on your team, respectful to you and to their fellow students, and understand that you are in control. It does not take yelling or a heavy-handed authoritarian approach. But it does take bold confidence and a measure of respect that goes both ways.

Carry on Mr. Frodo. Your quest awaits.

Post from Dr. Amanda Hurlbut

5 Tips for Good Teaching (and a Good Teaching Evaluation)

by Dr. Amanda Hurlbut, Faculty in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction,

The University of Texas at Arlington

Dr. Amanda Hurlbut
Dr. Amanda Hurlbut, Faculty

As a former school administrator, I am often asked what constitutes a successful teaching evaluation? I was the kind of administrator that continually walking through classrooms just be with students and to see the innovative things going on my teachers’ classrooms – no judgment, no condemnation, usually positive praise and constructive feedback for improvement. Teachers had no problem with this constant popping in and out until I plopped myself down to complete their formal evaluation. Then we had renditions of panic attacks, nervous hives, and jumbled speech. Why do teachers get so jittery about being formally evaluated by their principals? Now that I have stepped into a supervisory role where I am mentoring new and just-beginning teachers, I thought I would share a couple of things that I have learned from the awesome teachers that I have observed over the years…

These are the top five strategies present in every super-awesome teacher’s classroom (and formal observation):

  1. Perfection not wanted! I found that most often, teachers wanted me to see them at their absolute best – teachers are natural perfectionists and want to be seen as professionals with high expectations for themselves and their students. The problem with this mindset is that when children are involved things are almost NEVER perfect and almost ALWAYS unpredictable. Students will want to interrupt a lesson to share a story, will get distracted by a noise in the hall or a fidgety child sitting next to them, or more concerning, will come to school hungry and/or sleep deprived and not be focused on learning at all. Therefore, it is completely unrealistic that a teacher will ever have a lesson that goes absolutely perfect with 100% of his/her children on task, paying attention, or learning with accuracy. Instead, I would rather see how the teacher handles off-task students or students who are not understanding a new concept. So many times teachers, in their quest for this “perfect lesson”, will keep going even though the lesson is tanking or completely ignore a disruptive behavior in an effort to keep going with their idea of the perfect lesson (and in hopes that I won’t notice). This was not what I want to see. After all, I’ve been-there-done-that and I know that kids will act up and lessons will not go as planned. I am looking to see that the teacher realizes what’s going on during a lesson and how he/she copes with it. This means if a child is acting out – correct or redirect the child appropriately! If students are giving you deer-in-headlights-looks, don’t keep going – stop and clarify! Most of all I want teachers to know perfection is definitely not what I expect in a lesson and is a rather unattainable goal in the quest for good teaching.
  1. Classroom management is absolutely vital to master. I do not expect that your kids will always be on task or always acting appropriately. Kids are kids and they like to shout up, get up, be wiggly, go to the bathroom in the middle of a lesson, etc. However, classroom management is evident regardless of these behaviors. Do you have a procedure in class for calling on students? Or do you sometimes let them shout out an answer…Do they ask to go to the bathroom when you are explaining literacy centers, or do they know to wait until they get started? Do students know what the expectations are for lining up to go to specials? Or do they run down the hall yelling? Some of these are extreme examples, but classroom management is very important in being a good teacher. Vital to this point is the relationship you develop with your students and the positive learning environment that you build. The best teachers create an unspoken understanding that it is okay to make mistakes; failure is part of the learning process and students are still loved and accepted even when they mess up. So when you have to correct a student for shouting out in the middle of giving directions, that student knows that you still love him, despite the mistake he made. Do everything you can now to build that repertoire with your students and then stick to it! And remember, that students who are busy and active don’t have time to mess around, which brings me to my next point…
  1. Students who are engaged in learning don’t have time to be off-task! When students are actively engaged in their learning, they don’t have time to be off task and disruptive. When what they are working on is so interesting and fun and challenging and mind-bending, they won’t tune out or fiddle or lose interest, although you might have a louder volume in your classroom. Think about it. When you are interested in what you are doing, you are more likely to stay focused and attentive on the task at hand. It is the same with students. This is not saying that you have to entertain and be fun and games all the time. But when learning is decidedly planned to be engaging and interesting to students, some of the management issues disappear. Reflect on your own learning – would want to sit and listen to a 45-minute lecture about good teaching practices? No, because that is not good teaching practice. What if Professional Development opportunities were now web scavenger hunts on Pinterest to find innovative strategies for a problem? Or working in collaborative coffee groups with like-minded peers to strategize and compromise? Or visiting places such as wildlife reserves, museums, or gardens to plan active learning experiences for students? I know which learning experiences I would prefer…
  1. Specific feedback fuels learning! Research has demonstrated time and time again that feedback drives learning. Learners must receive constructive input to help them improve in the learning practice. Both positive (what a student is doing right) and negative (what a student needs to correct) is helpful in this process. In order to grow and master in the learning process, learners must receive specific input regarding what they are doing well and what still needs work. So when a teacher says, “good job” – what exactly does that mean other than to tell the student that they are doing something right? Feedback that is explicit and provides an opportunity to either correct or fine tune a learning task is much more helpful in the learning process and will stick longer. For instance, consider these two examples of feedback during a science lesson where students have to measure a precise amount of liquid for an experiment:

“That amount is not right, try again.”

“When you measure, you are looking at the amount from a top view. To get a better measurement, you need to look at it from the side to get an accurate amount of how much is in the container since the units are on the side.”

Which feedback is more helpful in correcting the learning issue? Teachers are often so overwhelmed with the number of learners in their class or the objective that a single lesson must cover, that they get pressured to “just keep moving” in order to get it all in. Providing immediate, specific feedback is absolutely vital towards facilitating deep and meaningful learning in the classroom and in the long run, will save time since students can quickly master a topic and move on to the next.

  1. Make sure that students know what they are learning and why. My teachers used to complain about having to write learning objectives on the board each day. But what they didn’t understand is how much it influenced students in driving their own learning process…The best teachers not only wrote the learning objectives on the board, but took time to actually explain what it was that students would be learning and why it was important. These teachers would then expect students to be able to verbalize their own learning objectives as personal learning goals. When students could express in their own words what they were learning and why and how it connected to what they learned previously, it revealed to me so much more about that teacher’s capability to engage his/her students in the learning process. It meant that the teacher had taken time to explain the concept, what it meant, and why it was important to learn. And when students could verbalize their learning, it usually meant they were learning on a very deep, meaningful level. So don’t turn your nose at those learning objectives. Teach students to look for them and as a way to excite them about the learning for the day!

Dr. Hurlbut’s bio: Dr. Amanda Hurlbut is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at UT Arlington where she teaches Child Development and online Master¹s courses in Curriculum and Instruction. During the summer of 2015, she completed her Ph. D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a research emphasis on elementary pre-service teacher preparation in issues of inclusion and Response to Intervention practices. She spent over 9 years in the public school system as a first and third grade teacher, instructional specialist, and elementary assistant principal.

What are your thoughts on your classroom observation? What fosters great classroom instruction and interactions that help year round but especially when being observed? What are ways you seek feedback for improvement of your practice? We welcome your comments below! -Dr. Semingson

Creating Excitement about the Language Arts in Your Classroom: Advice from Ali Capasso

Ali Capaso
UTA Alumni (Master’s of Education, Literacy Studies, 2015) and elementary teacher Ali Capsso shares ideas on creating excitement with language arts.

The classroom is the place that great readers, writers, listeners, and speakers are born.  In my own primary classroom, I have seen the miracle of struggling readers making almost two years of progress in a single school year.  I have also seen the tragedy of a student falling behind in language arts.  In both cases, the student was getting extra support in the classroom and at home.  They were reading independent and instructional texts, writing, and being read to daily.  The difference was in the motivation of the student.  The successful student wanted desperately to be on level with their peers and put in the work.  The other student had admitted to hating the language arts and despite every effort to find something to make this a priority for them, it kept getting more difficult.  Eric Jensen (1998) talks about this powerful effect in his book Teaching With the Brain in Mind.  In order to learn, a student needs to have motivation.  They need to have an understanding of the purpose for the lesson and promise of a meaningful application.  As a language arts educator, I have not yet found the answer to motivating all of my students.  However, the majority of my students love reading and writing!  Where there’s a majority, the rest often buy in.  In this article, I offer 4 tips for motivating your students to become masters of the language arts.

#1 – Be a Great Role Model   Whether it is obvious or not, your students really look up to you and value your personal practices.   Visibly being a lover of the language arts is an important component in student motivation.  In my own 2nd grade classroom, I make a point of talking to my students about my personal reading and writing practices.  I tell them about the books I am reading for fun in simple terms.  A month ago I was reading a realistic fiction book about a man’s adventures in space (The Martian by Andy Weir) and currently I am reading a fantasy fiction book about the way a man and his son work together to overcome great danger (The Road by Cormac McCarthy).  I tell them about how I choose books and understand myself as a reader.  I talk about the way I read to learn for my college courses.  I tell them about how much I love writing for pleasure daily and how I go about writing for a new purpose or audience.  These short talks about your personal practices a few times a week, integrated into your lessons, can really help students to begin thinking of themselves.  Shortly they will begin learning about their own interests and work.

“All of these celebrations remind students that the language arts are a valuable form of communication and the rituals around new materials and products create a certain kind of magic behind our work.”

#2 – Make Language Arts Practice Sacred  When my students and I read, write, put on a reader’s theater, listen to the reading of a poem, or anything else language arts related, we commit that time to the practice.  We take the time to review expectations for the activity, we talk about why it is important, and we don’t let anything interrupt us.  We create rituals around our practice, such as utilizing the workshop model.  We recognize each of these times as fun chances to become better communicators and thinkers.  Making your work time seem like more than just another grind can really help your students to enjoy language arts more.  In this same spirit, I would encourage you to try to minimize any drills or worksheets when you can.  Set aside a few times to share books together and really explore them without a looming worksheet or test alongside it.  Likewise, allow your students time and choices for exploring themselves as writers without an assigned topic or any concern for impending grading.  Giving students the chance to enjoy literacy in a stress-free way can help them to appreciate the language arts the way that you do – as a connoisseur and an artist!

#3 – Welcome New Materials and Finished Products in New Ways  When we get new books in our classroom, special students stamp them with a special class stamp and label them according to genre or reading level.  We set aside a minute or two to talk about new materials that we receive.  We might read them first before putting them in a special book basket.  Likewise, when we finish writing pieces, we often set aside some special time to share and publish what we’ve created.  There are many ways to publish finished work.  I have a special basket in my library reserved for bound anthologies of stories and essays we’ve written.  Students love seeing that their work has been chosen for another student’s book bag!  This also helps them to take pride in their work.  When my students have practiced the reading of a poem or reader’s theater, we film it and put it on our grade level Facebook page.  All of these celebrations remind students that the language arts are a valuable form of communication and the rituals around new materials and products create a certain kind of magic behind our work.

#4 – Create “Safe” Incentives and Celebrations for Students If students are to challenge themselves as thinkers and creators, they must know that their work is valued.  It may also help them to know that they are working toward an incentive.  Though I try not to make it mandatory, Scholastic Reading Counts has been the driving force behind reading for some of the more reluctant readers in my class.  They love the idea of earning points and gaining levels in the program.  For other students, the simple act of sharing reading and writing successes during share time is enough.  Students also often work on reading “challenges” through the school library that ask them to read for 15 minutes at a time from a certain genre, in a certain place, or to a certain type of friend like a little brother or their parents.  Other students in my class like to rack up reading minutes to earn the coveted award of reading a book to students in a lower grade level.  In writing as well we work toward sharing our finished work with other classes and adults.  The list goes on!  No matter what kinds of celebrations you decide on, remember that celebrations based on test scores and reading levels may not be the best choice because they don’t focus on progress that students are making that doesn’t always show up on the test.  Keep this in mind as you find ways to motivate your learners.

Hopefully this list has given you some ideas for helping your students to share your own love of the language arts.  With excitement and passion behind their work, students will not be able to help becoming master readers, writers, listeners, and speakers!

From Dr. Semingson: We welcome comments and dialogue. Click on this post to access the comment box. What are ways you make language arts engaging in your teaching practice? 

Managing Classroom Routines: It’s Like the Superbowl

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UTA’s Department Chair of Curriculum and Instruction and Associate Dean in the College of Education, Dr. John Smith, shares a football analogy for helping to streamline behavior routines and transitions in the classroom.

What are your thoughts on Dr. Smith’s football analogy? What works in terms of setting expectations and establishing routines for transitions and management in your classroom? If you are not yet teaching, what have you heard about “what works”? -Dr. Peggy Semingson, Blog Admin.

A teacher managing students in a classroom is much like a quarterback managing the players on a football team.  One of my favorite quarterbacks is Peyton Manning, the superbowl-winning quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.  Before he says Hike, he looks to see where each player on his team is positioned and on most plays he directs one or two of them to move into a better position.  Watch him, and other quarterbacks, moving players around before the ball is snapped.  It’s only when he is convinced that each player is in the right place and knows exactly what to do that he says hike and begins the play.

Classroom management is much the same.  Before I transition into a new activity, I always say to my students, “When I say the word Go, here is what I want you to do.” That statement freezes them.  Then I give 2-3 procedural directions for the transition and the next activity.  After giving the directions, I’ll ask, “Does everybody know what to do?  Are there any questions?”  When I’m convinced that all of the students know what to do, then I’ll say the word Go, much like a quarterback says Hike.  Often I change the word Go to something else, just for variety.

It’s being totally clear that the students know what to do and starting together that makes all the difference. When I don’t say the statement my students will often start into the activity as soon as they think they know what to do, and then it disintegrates. 

I have used this strategy with elementary school students, college undergraduates, and even graduate students. I hope it works for you.

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Creative Commons Texas Longhorns vs Florida Atlantic University by Randall Chancellor is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The brief podcast that connects to this topic, also by Dr. John Smith, is below! Have a listen!

What Can Football Teach Us About Classroom Routines? Advice From Dr. John Smith by Uta New Teachers on Mixcloud

UTA Grad and Sixth-Year Teacher Ali Capasso Shares Advice for New Teachers

Ali Capaso
Ali Capasso is almost done with a Master’s in Literacy Studies from UTA (Fall, ’15)! She focuses in her blog post on the importance of the classroom environment.

“An effective teacher manages a classroom.  An ineffective teacher disciplines a classroom.” -Harry Wong

As you begin your journey as a teacher, you have no doubt encountered a countless number of things to plan for and keep track of.  There are lessons to plan, walls to decorate, tools to buy, and anchor charts to make.  Among the endless amount of things you will be thinking of during your first year, I would like to emphasize one important point: Without a well-managed classroom, none of the other things will matter.

Indeed, the way your students navigate your classroom and expect to behave there will have an incredible impact on both student performance and teacher morale.  A study done in three inner-city schools showed that well managed classrooms had a significant positive effect on student achievement in the areas of math and reading (Freiberg et al., 2009).  According to a 2010 study, (Brackett, et al., 2010) disruptive behavior of students was one of the main reasons that new teachers leave our noble profession behind.  To put it simply, your classroom management can make or break your year!

Whether you are looking forward to your first year or have already begun, it is never too late to put a great classroom management system in place.  Here are some ways to begin building this system today by using time tested advice and valuable online resources.

  • Decide How You Want Your Classroom to Look (Build Routines)

Every teacher is different!  Before your year begins, think about your level of comfort with noise, movement, and different levels of organization.  Check this against what is appropriate for your age group.  Next, develop routines for absolutely EVERYTHING!  These are important things to go over on the first day.  How do students begin the day?  How will they ask to go to the restroom?  Can they sharpen their own pencil?  How should they line up for transitions?  Plan on devoting a little time to each procedure so that students know exactly what you expect them to do at all times of the day.

  • Develop Meaningful Rules/Norms

The rules in your classroom should be a guide for general behavior in your classroom.  In my opinion, the best way to develop this set of standards is to consult your class.  Bring your class together and remind them that the main goal of the group is to create a safe, supportive environment where learning can happen.  Ask for some suggestions and brainstorm a small set of rules to follow.  Have your students sign it in agreement and post it in a high traffic area.  In my lower grades classroom, we recite them at the beginning of each day.

  • Offer Praise and Incentives

There are many different ways to show your class how much you value their hard work.  One of these ways is to offer immediate feedback to students about what you see them doing.  My students know that if they are doing a good job, they receive a special type of post it note on their desk and can expect a positive note home at the end of the day.  There are lots of fun ways to keep track of class behavior.  Class Dojo is an app/website that allows every student to earn points throughout the day.  Points can also be taken away if necessary.  The website offers lots of ways to share progress with parents as well.  Students can always work for a whole class or individual reward using any points system you put into place!

  • Offer Logical Consequences

When students do misbehave, think about an appropriate way to have students make amends.  For instance, a student who runs down the halls instead of walking might need to spend a short amount of time practicing the correct behavior.  Having students understand the problem they had that day and how to fix it is the main goal of any consequence.  Teaching with Love and Logic is a marvelous book to read on this subject!

  • Develop Great Relationships

Students who love you will do just about anything for the good of the classroom.  Take the time to get to know each member of your class.  Talk to them about their interests and hobbies.  Greet your kids at the door every day with these things in mind.  Relationships are especially important in the case of kids with chronic misbehavior.  Often, these are the young people who need a good listener the most.  I am also a strong believer in bringing character lessons into the language arts classroom.  Many quality texts can be used to start discussions about having good character and making good choices.

Above all, remind your students that learning trumps all other things.  Create motivating lessons and excitement for the work ahead so that your students will forget to misbehave altogether.  Each day that work feels like play is a good day!

References:

Freiberg, Huzinec, C. A., &Templeton, S. M. (2009). Classroom management – A pathway to student achievement: A study of fourteen inner-city elementary schools. Elementary School Journal, 110(1), 63-80.

Brackett, M. A., Palomera, R., Mojsa-Kaja, J., Reyes, M., & Salovey, P. (2010). Emotion-regulation ability, burnout, and job satisfaction among British secondary-school teachers. Psychology in the Schools, 47(4), 406-417.