While having lunch at a local eatery today, I noticed my eye doctor dining at a nearby table. As I consumed my chicken tacos, a particular thought came to mind -- our classrooms need to be more like a visit to my eye doctor’s office.
That’s right. My eye doctor.
See, my eye doctor is awesome. I don’t dread my annual eye examination. I actually look forward to the appointment. As someone who has worn glasses/contact lenses since the beginning of the fourth grade, I’ve had a lot of eye examinations in my life. But never had I looked forward to a check-up until I began seeing my current doctor. Why?
Because my doctor is encouraging. He makes me feel like I get the correct answers to his questions -- questions that don’t have right or wrong answers.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with a visit to the eye doctor, here’s how it works. You sit in the chair and look through what’s called a phoropter, a weird-looking machine containing a whole bunch of interchangeable lenses (see the image above). In order to determine your prescription, the doctor goes through a series of questions I call “Which Looks Better?” For each eye, the doctor has you look through two different lenses in the phoropter, asking you which lens gives you clearer vision. Depending on your answer, the doctor changes the lenses to try and find the perfect lens combination for you.
Here’s how the conversation sounds with my doctor:
Doctor: “OK, which do you like better? Lens 1 or 2?”
Doctor: “Good. Now if I change it to this, which is better? 1 or 2?”
Doctor: “Good. Good. How about this? 1 or 2?”
Me: “Still 2.”
Doctor: “Good! Now, if I change this here, is it clearer or just a little smaller?”
Doctor: “Good! Good! OK, great job! That’s it. Things look good.”
The doctor asks me a question, I give him an answer, and he says, “Good job!” Remember, there is no correct answer to any of these questions. I’m simply answering based on what my eyes tell me looks good. Yet the doctor praises me. And each time he does, I feel a little prouder about myself. I think, “Alright! I’m acing this test!”
And that’s just it -- it isn’t a test!!! I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, but I still receive positive feedback for my efforts. Here lies the connection to our classrooms.
How often do we praise our students for doing what they’re supposed to do? How often do we provide positive feedback for the expected, unglamorous things that go on during the school day?
Like taking out a notebook without talking. “Great job, Noah. I appreciate you getting your notebook out quietly.” Yes, Noah was supposed to do this without being disruptive, but how much more encouraged is Noah feeling after this comment?
Like turning in an assignment on time. “Thank you, Grace. Great job getting your work done.” Yes, Grace was supposed to turn it in on time, but how much more likely is she to do it again because of this praise?
Like showing up at school. “Hey, Trevor. I’m glad you’re here today.” Yes, Trevor is supposed to be at school. But how much more will he look forward to coming tomorrow because of a comment like this?
I look forward to going to my eye doctor, because he makes me want to go. He does so by being encouraging, by offering praise, even for actions that are expected. How much more would our students want to come to our classrooms if they knew they could expect this same kind of encouragement? Give it a try. It’ll make a huge difference in the lives of your students.
I love Google Forms. As an elementary school principal, I use them all the time. All. The. Time. From a parent contact log to gathering staff meeting feedback to finding out which parents are interested in joining our PTA Board, I use Google forms on a daily basis. If you're not already familiar with this powerful tool, check out this series of tutorial videos on what has become my favorite online tool.
The great thing about a Google Form is that the data gathered from the form is neatly organized in a Google Spreadsheet (A.K.A. Google Sheet) that can then be sorted and/or filtered.
Last year I created two new Google Forms my teachers could use to submit their agendas and notes from their weekly Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings. My goal was to provide teachers an easy-to-use method of submitting their grade level's agenda and notes while providing me a central location for all their responses. It worked great. I had one form and corresponding spreadsheet for their PLC agendas and one form and spreadsheet for their PLC notes. Each week, I could sort the responses by grade level to see what each team was working on.
The problem came as the year progressed. With each passing week, more and more responses populated each spreadsheet. While I was able to sort the data by grade level, I still had to do a lot of scrolling due to the growing number of responses and large amount of text in some of the fields. What I needed was a way to filter the data for each grade level into a different worksheet (or tab) within the same spreadsheet. That's when I discovered EZ Query.
EZ Query is a free add-on for Google Sheets that enables you to create different worksheets (tabs) within one spreadsheet that show only the data you want. This easy-to-use add-on makes the already-amazing Google Forms/Sheets combination even better. Rather than write about how it works, allow me to show you in the short video below. Enjoy!
Ever had a bad day in the classroom? Ever made a mistake with your students you wish you could take back? I certainly have, and in this installment of my "What I've Learned" video series, I share the story of my biggest regret in the classroom, a time when I completely blew it.
This was a difficult story to tell. I'm certainly not proud of this one, but I wanted to share the story in hopes of encouraging those like me who may have said or done something they wish they could take back. Educators aren't perfect. Like everyone else, we're going to blow it, and we can't always take back our words or actions. It's the choice we make after our mistakes that can help make the difference.
Want to watch my earlier stories? The entire "What I've Learned" video series can be found here or on YouTube.
Over the course of my career in education, I've learned numerous strategies and received countless tips and pieces of advice on how to be a great teacher. So many things go into being an effective educator, and in this post I want to share one small thing I learned way back in 1994. I was taking a college course on physical education for prospective teachers, and one day the instructor shared with the class what I consider to be one of the simplest yet best teaching tips I've ever received.
The class was meeting outside on the grass field one day, and before beginning her lesson, the instructor looked up into the sky, adjusted where she was standing in relation to the students, and then told the class something I've never forgotten -- "Never have your students face the sun."
So simple, yet so powerful. Think about it. You're outside with your students giving them directions about an activity the class is about to begin. If your students are looking into the sun, they're more than likely going to be distracted by the blinding light of that large fireball in the sky. They're probably thinking, "Man, this sun is bright!" If they're distracted by the sun in their eyes, they're not completely listening to you. They may be quiet, but through squinted eyes, they're probably not fully engaged. Plus, it's simple courtesy. You have sunglasses, your students don't.
We learned at a young age not to stare at the sun. Let's not make our students do so when our classroom is the great outdoors.
At a recent district Instructional Technology Leader meeting, one of my tech-savvy colleagues, Julie Pulatie, showed me Pocket, what is fast becoming one of my favorite productivity apps.
If you're like me, you check check the Web and your social media accounts multiple times each day looking for good stuff. And if you're like me, you find it -- awesome ideas/strategies on how you can improve your practice, new websites, and inspirational blog posts or videos. And if you're like me, you probably say to yourself, "Man, this is really good stuff, but I don't have the time right now to read or watch it." Enter Pocket.
Pocket is a free service that allows you to save articles, videos, websites, or pretty much anything for later viewing on all your devices. Save a blog post on your computer now, read it later that evening on your iPad, iPhone or Android device. Save a YouTube video on your mobile device now, watch it tomorrow (or whenever) on your computer. No time now? No problem. Put it in your Pocket and get to it when your schedule allows.
Pocket is available on iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, Kindle Fire, Blackberry and more. For specifics on how to save to Pocket, click here.
If you're looking for a way to be more productive, to not let a good resource go unread or unwatched simply because of your busy schedule, check out Pocket. You'll be glad you did.
It’s been a little more than a year since I began serving as an elementary school principal, and as I reflect on my time spent in this position, one thing is clear -- this is a hard job.
Don’t get me wrong. While difficult, it is also incredibly rewarding. My district’s superintendent, as we were walking through classrooms a few weeks ago, said something that is so true -- “Being an elementary school principal is as close to being a rock star as one gets.” As an assistant principal at a middle school, students ran away from me, the disciplinarian. As an elementary principal, students run to me.
Being an elementary school principal definitely has it’s perks. Like hugs. If riches were measured in side hugs, I’d be very wealthy.
Or dozens and dozens of finger waves each day. Those of you at the elementary school level know what I’m talking about.
Or walking across campus and hearing your name spoken in unison by a group of students headed to the library or lunch. “Mr. Coley! Mr. Coley! Hi, Mr. Coley!”
Or greeting students and parents at the front gate each morning with a high five, seeing their smiling faces, eager to learn.
Or sitting in a kindergarten classroom. If you’re ever having a bad day, go sit in a kindergarten classroom for a little while. It’ll make you smile. Trust me.
Or riding tricycles with kindergarteners, as seen in the video below.
But being a principal is hard too. People often ask me, “What’s the hardest part?”
Is it the long hours? No.
Is it the stress? Definitely a stress-filled position, but no.
Is it having to handle student discipline? No. Not fun, but not the hardest part.
Is it speaking with upset parents? No. Again, definitely not fun, but not the hardest part.
For me, the hardest part of being a principal is...wait for it...
Feeling powerless. Wanting to help but not being able to do so.
I moved into administration because I had a desire to support teachers, which in turn helps students and their parents. By providing support and encouragement at this level, I have the potential to affect change on a larger scale than I could in a single classroom.
But what happens when I'm not able to help? What happens when the desire is there, but what is required is beyond my reach?
Like when teachers come to me requesting additional staffing, but such hiring decisions are out of my hands.
Or when some of our classroom computers are eight years old, and a limited budget makes the replacement process a painfully slow one.
Or when a teacher comes to me needing a new lamp for her LCD projector, but the lamps I've ordered over a month ago haven't yet arrived and there are none available to borrow.
Or when parents come to me with legitimate safety concerns regarding our parking lot, yet those concerns stem from other parents not following the rules or being courteous. How do I mandate manners?
Or when a teacher asks me to work with that hard-to-reach student, but none of the tricks in my bag are working.
This is the hardest part of my job. Wanting to help but lacking the expertise or resources to do so. It’s frustrating.
I sometimes wonder if I’m making a difference, if I’m being a good leader. Last week a student handed me this note at dismissal time.
I must be doing something right.
As I write this post in the middle of summer, teachers everywhere are enjoying a well-deserved break with their families. Beach days. Barbeques. Pool parties. Not having to set the alarm clock. Ahhh, gotta love summer! But in a few weeks, life will return to schools around the country as teachers head back to their classrooms to prepare for the 2014-2015 school year.
In one more week, I too will head back to work to get things rolling. As I think about starting a new school year, I was reminded of the summer before what turned out to be my last year in the classroom before moving into administration. Toward the end of that summer, when I finished setting up my classroom, I tried something I'd never done before. I put in a little extra effort with the hope it would benefit my students. What did I do? Find out by watching the short video below. The entire "What I've Learned" video series can be found on my website here or on YouTube.
I recently heard a story about three high school siblings who experienced a rarity in education -- all three students had the same teacher during the same semester. Different grade levels and different classes, but they all had the same teacher. For the sake of this story, we'll call him Mr. Smith.
One day, the three students' parents received a phone call from Mr. Smith letting them know that one of the students had fallen asleep during his class that day. Of course, this led to a conversation that evening between Mom, Dad, and the sleepy student. When the other two children, both well-behaved and high-achieving students, heard about what had happened, each of them shared their thoughts on the matter by saying, "I wish I could sleep in Mr. Smith's class."
So here's a question. How many of the three students would you say were engaged during Mr. Smith's class? For this question, we'll define engaged as being "into" the lessons being taught. How many students? Two? The ones not sleeping in class?
I contend that the answer is probably zero. None of the students.
Yes, the other two students weren't sleeping in Mr. Smith's class, but why not? Because they were engaged by his lessons? No. Both students indicated this wasn't the case, stating they wished they too could catch a few winks during Mr. Smith's class. No, more likely, the students weren't sleeping in class because they're "good" students who've been taught that sleeping in class is a no-no. Good students are supposed to pay attention in class, follow directions, and complete assignments on time. Because that's what good students do.
How often do we as educators mistake compliance for engagement? How often do we misinterpret quiet, on-task behavior as genuine engagement? Integrity has been defined as how one acts when no one is watching. Genuine student engagement is like integrity -- it will continue to be present even when the teacher isn't watching. Have you ever taught a lesson your students were so into that they lost track of time, forgetting they were supposed to go to recess or lunch? Think of those times when students asked to continue learning not because they had to but because they wanted to. That's the goal. That's genuine student engagement.
When I was teaching, I'm sure there were times when I mistook compliance for engagement. I had good classroom management. I ran a fun, structured classroom where students followed the rules and were on task. But does that mean all of my students were engaged, really "into" the learning, all of the time? Unfortunately, no. How often did I observe simple compliance from my students because I failed to truly engage them? How often did I observe counterfeit engagement?
Genuine student engagement occurs when a teacher is deliberate in his/her attempt to involve students in their learning, rather than simply treating them as passive vessels into which we pour knowledge. It occurs when students take ownership of their learning. It occurs when worksheets are replaced with meaningful tasks, when students are asked to create rather than complete. It occurs when students aren't asked to always sit through a lecture but are instead allowed to use technology to collaborate and connect with their peers, to learn together.
How will you genuinely engage your students today?
"Am I making a difference in the lives of my students?"
"Am I getting through to him/her?"
These are questions all educators ask themselves (or at least should), and I think it's common for teachers to wonder whether they're reaching those hard-to-reach students.
In this fifth story from my "What I've Learned" video series, I share an example of how teachers can have a powerful impact on every student, even when they don't realize it.
If you haven't yet watched the first four videos in the series, you can do so by visiting the "What I've Learned" page. If you've already seen them, I welcome your feedback.
In two days I’ll be heading to Palm Springs to attend the annual Computer-Using Educators (CUE) Conference. I always look forward to mid-March and the opportunity to travel to the desert to be among other like-minded educators who come to learn about cutting-edge technologies and strategies to increase student learning through the use of educational technology. And if past events are any indication, while I’m at the conference this year I will hear, at least once, someone say something like “You still use PowerPoint?” (said with incredulity and rolling eyes) or “I can’t believe anyone still uses PowerPoint.”
Well, I have a confession to make. I still use PowerPoint. <gasp>
What?! You still use PowerPoint, Brent? Yep. I still use PowerPoint, and here’s why – because sometimes PowerPoint is still the most appropriate tool for the job, just like good old-fashioned paper and pencil are sometimes the best tools for the job.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t use PowerPoint for everything. I believe PowerPoint can be overused and misused, that “death by PowerPoint” is much too common. I agree that using a presentation with a bunch of slides filled with too much text is not a great way to increase student (or staff) engagement and therefore maximize learning. But there are times when a PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentation can help get the job done, especially when you embed video and/or other engaging elements into the presentation.
What about Prezi? Many would say Prezi is way more visually appealing than PowerPoint, and I would agree. But the question that needs to be asked is this – What are you trying to achieve in your presentation? Yes, Prezi is very flashy, and I think it’s a pretty slick presentation tool. But one must be careful not to overshadow a presentation’s content with its packaging.
A few years ago I attended a church that, for a time, used Prezi to display the lyrics to the songs we sang during worship. Did those lyrics look cool up on the big screen? You bet. Words were spinning in and out, changing color with each verse. It was very impressive. The problem? I frequently found myself paying more attention to trying to guess what the next transition effect was going to be than focusing on what the words of the song were saying, on worshiping Jesus. The flashy method of delivery took away from the content. It was distracting.
In the right situation, I think Prezi can be the perfect tool. There are so many great presentation tools out there like Prezi, Haiku Deck, Keynote, and Google Slides, each with its strengths. But my point is this – the task should always determine the tool. Putting up a new fence in your backyard? A hammer is a great tool for the job. But it’s not the right tool for every home improvement project. One size doesn’t fit all, in home improvement as well as technology.
Rather than demonizing PowerPoint, dismissing it as an archaic tool, let’s remember that for some, creating a PowerPoint presentation is a giant step forward in integrating technology in the classroom. We’re all at different points along the spectrum of technology use in education. Let’s celebrate each other’s successes and help each other grow.
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
Brent on Twitter