Saturday, February 22, 2014

Where All Students Learn

We all have talking a lot about the need to address all of our students' needs. It's our mandate, so I'm hoping your school has embraced the call. It's bigger than new programs...bigger than technology integration and standardized testing. It's even bigger than - I think - the achievement gap issue in that we're talking about the needs of all of our students in all of our schools.

None of these are easy to do, and each requires a number of posts and plans for bringing it to fruition, so I don't mean to sound overly casual here. These five pieces, though, represent what I feel are non-negotiable pieces to making it happen.

As always, your feedback is deeply appreciated.

1) Adapting the Right Mindset
Educating teenagers is extremely difficult work that has to start with the right attitude.  Simply put, everyone’s “hearts and minds” have to be in a place that says all children can learn and that it’s our job to support them through the necessary processes.  Every school needs to somehow include Carol Dweck’s Mindset (or some parallel research) into their teachers’ and students’ work as it details the truth that all people can learn more than they currently know and become better than they currently are.  It’s not the overly optimistic hype that says anyone can be a surgeon or a physicist, but instead, it’s the very strong reality that who we are today is not who we need to be tomorrow.  Being able to meet the needs of all students means that a school has to believe that all teachers and learners can and must grow.  If we don’t believe in everyone’s potential, our school culture will reflect that; the limits and negativity will be palpable in the conversations and interactions between teachers, students, administrators, and staff; people will continue to struggle as a result.

2) Clearly Defining Quality Benchmark Standards  
Once we believe all students can grow and achieve, schools will embrace the process involved in identifying, accepting, and teaching to high and interesting benchmark standards for all students.  It’s important to have these standards defined in ways that are understood by the students and addressable in our assessment systems because that’s how students, teachers, and families are going to know what students are learning and what they’re having a hard time understanding.  As we are better able to understand exactly where students are struggling or not, schools will become increasingly better at helping them take steps forward.

3) Building Relationships, Allowing for Choice and Voice
A tremendous piece in educating teenagers and engaging anyone is showing them respect. Part of our best practices ought to be finding ways to include students’ voice and choices in their education.  If we’re actually looking to meet the needs of all learners, we really need to talk to them and build relationships with them, which will include considering what information would interest them, how best to engage them, and what chances can we give them to show what they know.  Education should be something done with students, not to students.  

4) Finding and Supporting Solid Tier-One Strategies for All Classrooms
As I said earlier, teaching teenagers is extremely difficult, nuanced work when it’s done right.  It’s a bigger task than ever to find ways to appropriately use assessment data and differentiate lessons while properly addressing core content and skills.  We must have opportunities to continually research, try, share, observe, reflect, and improve upon classroom practices.  Teachers have to feel safe when they find something new that may work.  Setting up a mentoring system that includes 1:1 time, collegial intravisitations, critical friends groups, grade-level professional learning communities, and vertical departments codifies a culture of learning and sharing what works best for students, which means that fewer students will need further interventions to find success.  

5) Creating and Using a 360 Support System
Learners struggle for a variety of reasons, and schools who want to meet all learners’ needs must have not only a wide range of academic, social, and emotional supports ready to help students, but also dedicate time to helping all adults in the building serve as that first set of eyes and ears who will notice when students need help.  I actually believe that addressing students’ emotional needs can pay tremendous learning dividends by making students know that the school’s adults care about them and can most often happen casually by building relationships in classes.  Using frameworks such as UDL and UbD will dovetail with this relationship-building philosophy by solidifying a purposeful and differentiated academic system for teaching courses’ content and skills.


  1. The biggest change I would make would be to make your #5 the #1, make it the starting point. If we don't understand what students are coming to us with, or through, or in spite of, or because of, if we don't consider first and foremost what they have gone through before they even entered a school building for the first time that shaped them their first 5 years or so, or what they go through at home on a daily basis, or even what they endure at school that we may not see (eg bullying), we will struggle that much harder.

    Additionally, we absolutely must also understand - and I harp on this a lot because I work with the 0-5 set - that current standards do NOT address the physical (movement, especially large-motor!), emotional (need social time and modeling), and neurodevelopmental (concrete, whole-first-parts-and-reasons-later; independent & unstructured before direct instruction) needs of early learners. Having seen my younger child, who has had CCSS-aligned curriculum for 4 years now, unraveling emotionally has been hard for me as a parent and outrages me as a teacher. Without a better understanding of what and how children learn best, and at what ages and stages they do, #'s 1-4 are a lot less likely to be successful.

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    1. I very much agree with you here. We are a people profession, in my opinion, but so many stakeholders - in and outside of education - want teachers to be focused on content. I'd bet that only a tiny percentage of teacher prep programs and an even smaller percentage of professional workshops and PD time are devoted to child/adolescent psychology. So many people instead want to talk about "toolkit" items and/or tactical systems pieces (especially, these days, around accountability), but we are missing large pieces of foundations work.

      Standards shouldn't (Sorry, again, for initial typo) be making students cry. There shouldn't be a need for "Handwriting Without Tears." We also shouldn't, though, be having parties and endless "fun time" during school. The artists among us know how to strike the needed balance. Students should feel good about learning difficult material

  3. "Standards should be making students cry."

    Have you been in a Kindergarten classroom lately? Is there ANY reason whatsoever that a 5YO should be made to cry because of unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate expectations? Heck, is there a reason for SCHOOL to make a 5YO cry?

    I'm not saying it should be all easy-peasy; challenge is important for kids, to be able to stretch and grow. I see that with my own children and with my own students of all ages. But squashing kids flat with academics when they're still needing to be outside playing in the dirt is another story entirely. I am having a hard time understanding how you can reconcile that with "Students should feel good about learning difficult material." How do students feel good about material that makes them cry? O.o Color me puzzled.

  4. Holy typo / auto-correct snafu, Batman!! That should have read "Standards shouldn't be making students cry." I want things taught, but never at students' emotional expense. Sorry about that. I hope I can edit and repeal my villain status.