Friday, November 20, 2009

How Do You Influence Others?

We enter the profession looking through rose - colored glasses, but it often doesn't take long for those glasses to come off. Most new teachers hit a period of disillusionment with teaching between November and March or April of their first year. As the year progresses, more and more time is spent on paperwork requirements, meeting district policies, endless meetings, test preparation, and other duties that seem to have little or nothing to do with the actual teaching of children.

Disillusionment also comes in the form of colleagues or administrators who do not live up to our expectations. Either way, this can spiral into self - doubt and a questioning of being in the profession. This disillusionment can happen to veteran teachers as well who are frustrated with the system and the requirements added year after year. Our first comment to those of you who may be feeling this way is, "You are making a difference!"

When you are feeling low or blue and wonder why you are giving up so much of your time and energy, just remember that child who looks up to you or that teenager who finally started participating in class. These kids need you! They need someone who is steady and consistent and who will care for them no matter what. They need teachers like you who care enough to spend their personal time looking for strategies to improve, refine, or bring new ideas into the classroom. Don't give in to your feelings of frustration and helplessness. You are not helpless. You are able to make a difference daily, even if the results aren't immediately apparent.

Not only can you make a difference in the lives of the students in your own classroom, but you can make a difference in the lives of your colleagues, administrator, and all of the students in your school. When you face a difficult situation, always do what is right. Are you not being supported? Then find someone in the school who needs help and support that person as you are able. Be a good role model. Show others what support looks like.

Does your administrator keep piling on extra duties? Do those duties with a cheerful attitude, and then go above and beyond when you are able. Giving cheerfully helps our heart and spreads like wildfire. Be a model for others. Do you have a negative colleague? Come up with one positive comment for every negative comment this person makes. By being a positive influence in the lives of our colleagues, we also become a positive influence in the lives of the students they encounter. Will you see an immediate change? Probably not. Will you ever see a change? Definitely.

While we may have no control over the attitudes of others, we do have control over our own attitudes. Keep a laminated card on your overhead cart, filing cabinet, the visor of your car, the bathroom mirror, and everywhere else you think you may see it. This card should read: "I am making a difference in the lives of thousands of children. I choose to be a positive influence to everyone around me. I will greet the day, tasks, and challenges with a cheerful heart." When in a bad mood and reading this, remember that you do matter. You can choose to be a negative influence in this world or a positive influence. We personally choose to be positive influences as much as possible. These cards help us to remember this goal to keep our priorities straight. Once you do, you'll be amazed at how the little and big things that annoyed you in the past no longer have power over your life.

Is this easy? No. Just like teaching, it takes hard work and consistency. However, for us, the rewards are well worth it. You must decide for yourself whether the potential rewards of a positive working environment and learning environment are worth the work it takes to approach all situations with a cheerful heart. Before long, it is a habit and is no longer a difficult task to be cheerful each day. You'll also notice others around you being cheerful and the negativity fading.

As an experiment, take a look at what is frustrating you right now, and ask yourself how much of that is happening because of your own attitude. It is not an easy question to ask. How much of it is a cycle of negativity in the school that no one seems able to stop? Are you going to continue to allow other people's attitudes to control your own attitude and outlook on life and on teaching? These are important questions to ask yourself.

Steven Covey's (2004) book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People , discusses the circle of influence each person has in his or her life. It is an excellent book and one that we highly recommend every teacher to read because we not only influence those in our family or a few colleagues, but hundreds and thousands of students over the course of our career. In turn, those students influence others in a circle that is ever growing. Now that's something to think about.

Excerpt from Chapter 12 of Classrooms that Spark, 2nd Edition, by Emma McDonald and Dyan Hershman, available March 2010 from Jossey-Bass.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Teaching Students How to Learn Through Research

Rather than trying to teach your students facts, try teaching them how to learn. Our brains learn better and retain more when we are forced to figure out the answer for ourselves. Have students research important questions for your unit of study and then teach this information to the rest of the class. The Learning Pyramid shows that 90% of learning is retained when directly applied or taught to others. Wow! What a statement that makes! When we teach our students how to learn, to be able to find information for themselves, we are in effect teaching them how to be lifelong learners.

Does this mean that as teachers we sit back and do nothing? Of course not! We are the facilitators in this process. Our students need to be taught how to ask the right questions and how to find the information. They also need to be taught how to process and use that same information. We must teach about sources of information. We must teach how to take notes from information that we read. We must teach how to put that information into an organized presentation, and we must teach our students how to either apply or teach it to others!

Start with the basics and walk students through their first project step-by-step.

What kind of question do I ask?

Teach students how to create questions that will allow them to discover further information about their topic. You can begin with the basics of who, what, where, when, why, and how. Don't forget about using Bloom's Taxonomy keywords to help students create questions. These may be statements of action rather than questions, but serve the same purpose. Using Bloom's keywords also help students take their research from the basic Knowledge level to the higher cognitive levels of Synthesis and Evaluation.

Where do I go to find the information?

Teach students (yes even the young ones) about primary and secondary sources and where the sources can be accessed. Get them thinking about why we use both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources offer us original documents and eye-witness accounts of information as written by the person involved in the event. Secondary sources can provide analysis of those primary sources, an overview of the information, and various interpretations of the event or concept.

Provide opportunities for your students to become familiar with the school and public library as well as locating information on the internet. This is also a good opportunity to teach students how to discern whether the information gained from an internet site is valid. This can be done by finding support documents from primary sources or similar information from organizations that have proven to be reliable sources.

How do I pull out the most important and relevant information to answer my question?

Teach students how to take notes from written and oral sources. This is an excellent time to practice locating the main idea and supporting details in a paragraph or other piece of writing. Student notes should answer the questions developed in the beginning, focusing on the main idea and supporting details. As students get more proficient, they should be able to skim the passage to determine whether it provides the necessary information.

How do I organize this information?

Teach students several different methods for organization. This allows students to choose the method that will best present the information they've gathered. Information can be organized many ways, including: chronological order, linear line of thought – one idea leading to the next, and position statements followed by supporting facts.

How can I apply this information in a meaningful way?

Teach students to look for the "why" of their research. What's the point of doing this besides the fact that it is required for your class? Students need to think about the new information in a way that is meaningful. How would our lives be different if a historical event had not occurred or was resolved differently? What choices will the student make in their life now that they've learned this new information? How does this information currently affect the student's life or appear in the student's life? This is a difficult step for many students not used to thinking about information in a way that personally relates to them.

How can I best teach others this information?

Teach students different strategies for presenting and teaching information. This can be done through a question/answer session, creating an interactive website, creating a board game, or designing a scavenger hunt or web quest. Standing in front of the classroom giving an oral presentation (lecture) is not the only method students should use to disseminate information. If you really want students to teach others, give them each a chance to be the teacher and create their own lesson teaching the class about the topic they studied.

Once you've taught your students these important skills, utilize them each six weeks in a project related to your unit of study. Another option is to work on one major project throughout the entire semester (or year) and have students complete one step each grading period. This may be a better option for younger students who are just beginning to learn the process of researching new information.

I always start out with a simple project such as answering one question in one or two paragraphs with an explanation, and get more involved from there. I may have students do a simple presentation and visual. Pop-up books are fun for elementary students and do not take up much class time to create when only one page.

Don't forget about experiments, learning centers, scavenger hunts, web quests, and other simple projects that may not be as time-consuming. Even finding the answer to a simple question promotes active learning on the part of a student. Let your students discover the knowledge for themselves and share their findings with others. I think you'll find that you have a classroom full of motivated and excited students who want to learn! No child is too young or too old to learn these skills!