Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Students Want From Their Teachers

Inspired by Angela Maier’s posting on 12 Things Kids Wantfrom Their Teachers and her participation in a recent #ptchat  , I decided to see what students at my high school want from their teachers.

So over the course of several lunch periods, I went from table-to-table, asking, “What qualities do you look for in the best teachers? The best teachers (blank)…”

While my methodology will cause my college statistics professor to cringe, the students were remarkably honest. I interviewed about 200 students and fewer than 5 answered “no work” or “allows us to sleep in class.” The answers reaffirmed that students really do want to learn and be challenged. Not surprisingly, the answers didn’t differ much from Angela’s list either.

To the best of my abilities I grouped the answers together and they are listed by frequency of response.

We want teachers who make class engaging, interesting, captivating and fun.
This was the run-away winner with more than the next three responses combined.

Students used words like variety, creative, hands on, participation, fun, and real to describe the best lessons.

I want the subject to connect to my life.
I like the classes where we (students and teachers) are equals and share the responsibility for learning.
Allow us to participate in the learning.
Make the class fun. Allow us to move around and be active.
I like the classes where we play games that help us learn.
Let us use technology.

We want teachers who are chill and lenient
I was initially surprised by how many students used the word “chill” to describe their best teachers and I initially discounted the answer wrongly assuming that students meant teachers who allow them to sleep in class, don’t have high expectations, or are easy. After hearing chill mentioned several times by several different students, I pressed the students further for what they meant.
Teachers need to realize that we have our own lives and their class is not the only one we take.
Like, if we can’t complete a homework assignment for a good reason, the teacher should understand and not just give us a zero.
Ms. XYZ looks at her tests and if a bunch of students miss the same question, she doesn’t count it against us. She teaches it again. I wish all teachers did this.
Chill teachers work with us

We want teachers who are enthusiastic.
While this answer definitely correlates to the top answer, it seemed as if students were referring as much to the teacher’s personality as they were to the lesson.
Students used words like passionate, energetic, exciting and committed to describe enthusiastic teachers.
We can tell when a teacher doesn’t want to be here.
Teachers who love their subject.
Ms. XYZ meets us at the door with a smile. She’s excited to see us and teach us. 

We want teachers who relate to us
This differed from relating the subject to the students’ lives and instead focused on the relationship between students and teachers.
Understand who we are
Ask about me
Teachers who take the time to get to know who I am

We want teachers who make sure we learn
Students used words like helpful, clear, and feedback.
Teachers need to be patient.
Show us, take the time to explain and if necessary re-explain.
Make sure we get it before moving on.
Let us know how we’re doing
Wants us to do well and is willing to make sure we do well
Work with us

We want teachers who are respectful
Students referred to respectful teachers as those who listen, care, communicate, positive, approachable and nice.

We want teachers who are knowledgeable of the subject matter.
Teachers who have the knowledge bring the subject alive.
Ms. XYZ can explain it so well because she is so knowledgeable.
Ms. XYZ knows [her subject] inside-out

Several of the students who answered this answered it negatively, referring to teachers who do NOT know their subject matter. This answer surprised me. I guess I was naïve. 8 students mentioned it, so it’s not an insignificant number. I pressed the students on this one a little—without wanting to know whom the teachers were.
You can tell when they don’t know because they can’t answer your questions and they just read from their textbook.
She always is correcting herself the next day.

Other answers mentioned by more than 4 students:
Stays focused
Admits their faults
Values our time
Good class management

We want teachers who don’t lecture.
Several students also answered with what the best teachers don’t do: lecture. As a matter of fact, avoid excessive lecturing would have been the 3rd ranked answer. While the students recognized the role of direct instruction in learning, they differentiated between the good and the bad.

Teachers can lecture, but they can’t lecture for the entire class (our classes our 90 minutes) and expect us to learn.
We want to be taught. Don’t just worksheet and read off of a PowerPoint.
The worst is when a teacher just uses a pre-made PowerPoint.
Teacher X lectures a lot, but she involves us in the lecture. It’s lively and she uses lots of stories. She makes it real.
I hate the cookie-cutter lessons. Lecture, worksheet, read from the book, answer questions from the book. Repeat.

What would you add to the list?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Parent Engagement

As part of our Kettle Run edcamp (read: prior posts) , we created a hour-long parent-teacher roundtable. As the organizer of the roundtable, I tried to include a diverse parent panel. The roundtable was well-attended by approximately 2 dozen teachers. Although we only had an hour together, I learned a lot and I believe the others in attendance did as well.

Four Take-Aways

1. We all want what's best for the students/children. 
Teachers want their students to thrive in their classroom and beyond. Parents, of course, want the same. One teacher put it simply, "We're in this together. We need your support."

2. Communication is a shared responsibility. 
One parent sheepishly admitted she wasn't sure if it was OK to email teachers with comments and concerns. Reflecting the views of all the teachers present, a veteran teacher begged, "Please, please email us. We want to communicate with you."

Another remarked, "If you have a concern, please let us know. We [want an opportunity] to address your concern and fix it if necessary."

Expressing the delicate nature of the balance between communicating with parents and allowing students to learn on their own, a teacher commented, "I want my students to take responsibility for their actions. You (parents) won't always be there and it's important for students to learn on their own from their own failures."

3. We have the same concerns. 
While parents want what's best for their children, they also want what's best for all of the children. During the roundtable one parent brought up the widespread cheating that seems to occur, a sentiment shared by most of the teachers present. As a result, at least partially, cheating was brought up in later edcamp discussions and administratively we're looking at what actions we should take. Parents thanked us for creating a safe and nurturing environment and they expressed a concern/understanding over high stakes testing and their impact on learning. 

4. Parents want to be heard. 
Well over half of the parents I invited couldn't attend the parent-teacher roundtable because of prior commitments. Almost every parent who declined the invitation encouraged me to invite them to future parent-teacher roundtables and many took the time to email me their concerns and feelings.

Moving forward with the goal of increasing parent engagement
While none of the points above is earth-shattering, the conversation reaffirmed my beliefs that we must actively engage parents.

I'm hoping to offer future parent-teacher and parent-administrator roundtables in the future because this truly was a valuable experience for all involved. While much of communication between parents and school officials takes place informally (on the sidelines of children's games, at churches, at the grocery stores), we must find ways to ensure parents are heard.

Immediate ways to increase parent-school engagement:
  • Expand our social media presence (Remind101, Twitter, school website)
  • Friday Five: randomly call five parents on Friday to discuss school affairs 
  • Offer parent/community trainings (in person and online) once a month on what we're doing at Kettle Run. Possible sessions include: AngelLearning (our course management software), Twitter, book clubs, bullying, cyber-citizenship. 
  • Increase attendance at Parent-Teacher Conference nights by showcasing student work, staging live performances, etc.
Ideas for the future:
  • Offer roundtables and gatherings in the community (coffee shop, local Pizza parlor, etc.)
  • Create a school blog allowing parents to communicate with school officials
  • Community service day involving students, parents and school staff
Parents, teachers, administrators, what are your ideas for increasing parent engagement? 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Kettle Run's First Edcamp: A Reflection

A special thanks to Kim Ritter, for co-writing this article and for co-organizing the edcamp.
On the Monday, October 8th In-Service Day, Kettle Run High School teachers and administrators participated in their first Edcamp or KRHS Unconference.  After beginning the day with a quick greeting and orientation, schedules for the day were distributed. From this evolving menu, each staff member chose to go to 2 one-hour long sessions and 3 thirty-minute sessions.  At the conclusion of the workshops, faculty gathered in their departments for a focused discussion on the day followed by an entire staff debriefing in the auditorium.
Signs that it was a great day of professional development:  
·      Teachers were actively engaged, asking questions and taking notes as opposed to the traditional PD where teachers are grading papers, reading books, playing on their cell phones, crocheting, etc.
·      Conversations continued past the bell. Walking around the cafeteria, discussions regarding morning sessions continued.
·      The edcamp reflections completed at the end of the day also reflected that each session offered valuable insight and information.

Feedback received from teachers:
·      “I was glad to see the faculty members break out of their departments and attend workshops by other disciplines. This helps to encourage cross curricular activities that can incorporate today’s technology…It was also very helpful to have an end of the day department meeting to exchange ideas and information.”
·      “The day gave us a chance to learn what innovative ideas other teachers are using in their classrooms.  We get so caught up in our own rooms that we forget to access all of the talent that is around us every day.”
·      “[The day] was a wonderful opportunity for staff to engage in conversation about what is happening in their classrooms and to share those resources with each other.”
·      “Let’s make sure we do this again next year. I’m definitely leading a session next year.”
·      “It’s too bad we don’t have the opportunity to do this more often.”

Changes for next year:
·      Because there was no pre-signing up for sessions, several facilitators/session leaders expressed frustration with not knowing how many copies to run-off. Next year, we’ll make better use of online storage options (Google drive, Dropbox, our course management software). One of the problems I foresee, however, is teachers may not have real-time access to these because many of our school provided laptops don’t keep sufficient battery charge.
·      Expanding and improving the parent-teacher roundtable and student-teacher roundtable.

Science department chair Tammy Hagan led one of the more popular sessions on creating foldables. Because of the session’s popularity it was repeated in the afternoon. 
Twenty-eight staff members led 33 sessions over the course of the day. Truly a school-wide experience, one popular session incorporated a parent/teacher roundtable and another a student/teacher roundtable.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Kettle Run Edcamp

For teachers in our county, October 8 was an in-service day with each school responsible for creating their own professional development. 

After returning from EdcampLeadership, I approached my principal about using the Edcamp approach for our inservice day. Instead of paying for a guest presenter, who teachers may or may not have found worthwhile, we decided to host our own unconference.

Knowing the knowledge and expertise to move our school forward can be found within our own walls, our Edcamp was made by the teachers for the teachers. After all, who better understands what’s going on in our school and what we need, than our teachers?

Preparing for the Edcamp Kettle Run
1.     Because this was something new and because we had to turn in our plans to Central Office, many of the sessions were pre-created. Along with our school librarian, we created a google form and asked teachers to sign-up to lead sessions. Because it was a totally new experience, we needed to actively approach teachers—some mild arm-twisting—to lead various sessions. In the end, we had more than enough sessions (to see our schedule click here).
2.     In creating the sessions, we focused on our new teacher evaluation system, AngelLearning (our course management program), lesson planning, and 21st century skills. Two of the more interesting sessions were a parent-teacher roundtable and a student-teacher roundtable.
3.     Our schedule:
8:00-8:15       Meet in the auditorium
8:30-9:30       Session 1
9:40-10:40    Session 2
10:50-11:20  Session 3
11:20-12:20  Lunch: Salsaritas
12:20-12:50  Session 4
1:00-1:30       Session 5
1:35-2:00       Meet in departments
2:05-2:30       Wrap-up

For sessions 4 and 5 we purposefully left several “spots” open. These were reserved for teachers to continue a morning session in more detail, repeat a prior session that teachers were unable to attend, or for a new session to be added. The spots were quickly gobbled up as teachers wanted to continue their AP Roundtable conversation, a repeat of foldables was offered and a new session was created by one of our math teachers.
4.     In creating the schedule, we did two things untraditionally. First, we kept the schedule secret until the day of the event. Secondly, we left teacher’s names off of the schedule because we didn’t want teachers to choose a session based on the facilitator/leader. We did, however, tell the facilitators where/when their session would be held. This decision had both positive and negative consequences, which I’ll discuss in my follow-up posting.

 I'll post a follow-up to the great day of learning in a day or two.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Effective Homework Assignments

During the first couple of weeks of school, I’ve had several conversations with teachers, parents and students regarding homework. One student frankly told me that homework turns her off of several her classes classes. She continued, “If I get a lot of homework, especially [work that is] boring, busy work, or too hard, I’m not going to want to do it and I’m not going to enjoy the class as much. I probably won’t do as well in the class as I could.”

I pressed the student further about what constitutes busy work; a couple of her lunch tablemates chimed in. It soon became clear that each had his/her own view of what constitutes effective homework and what could be considered busy work. As an educator, I began contemplating, how can a teacher create quality homework assignments that students will complete?  

First, homework must have a clear academic purpose, one that the students understand. For this reason, homework should never be used to introduce new material. Flashing back to my days as a teacher, I distinctively remember 2 times that homework was least often completed. First, when a substitute assigned homework on my behalf, fewer students than normal completed the homework. I believe this was the case because the substitute couldn’t sell the assignment’s purpose. The other assignment that stood out for all the wrong reasons, were the assignments I gave to cover material that I didn’t have time to cover before the standardized test, in other words, work that was introducing new material.

A second characteristic of effective homework is that students must be able to complete the assignment. Far too frequently, my daughter’s frustration at her inability to complete a homework assignment causes undo stress. “I hate this class.” “I can’t do it.” This frustration often spills over to family conflict as my wife and I attempt to provide our assistance, reassurance and motivation. As a teacher, I remember a homework assignment that I created on early river valley civilizations. I spent hours developing what I thought was a creative and effective assignment. I was excited to see my students’ completed assignments. To my surprise and dismay, few students completed the assignment. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the assignment was poorly constructed and was too difficult (students were more than willing to share that information). What I don’t know, however, is what were the long-term ramifications of that one homework assignment? Even though I modified the assignment and we worked on it together in class, did it turn students off of my class? Did it make them less likely to try future homework assignments? Clearly, students must be able to complete homework without assistance.

This lead me directly to my third characteristic of effective homework, it must be differentiated. Working with the principle that all homework must be doable, it also is true that homework must not be seen as busy work. A struggling student might find questions 1-10 difficult, but doable, but a higher-level student might find the same questions easy and a waste of time. Why not design different homework based on student readiness and ability? In addition to differentiating based on readiness, I’ve always found it beneficial to give students a choice of assignments. After explaining the objective/learning target for the assignment, provide the students with several ways that they can demonstrate mastery of the objective for homework. Even better, allow the students to create their own assignments.

I know each teacher, student and parent has his/her own opinions and feelings regarding homework. But, I believe that if we clearly articulate the homework’s purpose, ensure that students can complete it with little outside assistance, and we make the assignment appealing through differentiation, we’ll see improved results.