6 Steps to Being an Educational Superhero

Happy Monday To You!

If you have been following along the past several weeks, you’ve noticed a trend in our Monday blog posts.  First, I must apologize for being absent last Monday.  My guess is many of our readers were on Spring Break and not in the mood for anything too heavy (wink!).  The trend in our Monday posts has been our series How to Be an Educational Superhero.  Because we know your life is busy and everyone deserves a second chance, we want to give you the opportunity to review the whole series and see it in its entirety right here.  Don’t have time?  Sign up for our newsletter and we will send a PDF straight to your inbox.  Now without further ado, How to Be an Educational Superhero!

1. Surrender control

The title post of this series was Why This One Basic Teaching Principle is Holding Your Students Back.  In it, I explain how common it is to take control of the classroom.  We as teachers feel the pressure and responsibility surrounding our students’ success or failure and take initiative to ensure their success.  Here is the issue with this line of thinking: students don’t want to be directed.  They want to be guided.  My inspiration for this post came from a man named John Taylor Gatto, and his courage earned him the title New York State Teacher of the Year.  In his talks and literature he lays out the history of education and reveals that the structure we use today was historically designed to keep the masses in check by giving them countless facts to memorize and regurgitate…sound familiar?  He goes on to talk about the concept of “open source” learning and how bells and desks don’t facilitate a real education.  He states examples of extremely successful individuals like Diablo Cody and Danica Patrick who dropped out of school early to pursue their passions.  According to him, life is the classroom and everyone is a teacher.  I think the answer for us lies somewhere between our current system and his utopia.  Why can’t we as teachers provide this type of learning environment to our students?  Which brings me to Step 2.

2. Let Students Choose Their Behavior

Now I’m sure you’re thinking, Whoa there missy! What’s this new age crap you’re spewing about choosing behavior?  I don’t want out of control hellions in my classroom.  Let me clarify: I am challenging you to show your students how to be responsible for their own behavior.  In the second post, 10 Ways to Stop Sending Kids to the Principal,  I outline how to incorporate a student-centered behavior program in your classroom.  The key is guiding students in devising their own view of positive behavior in the classroom through addressing expectations you have concerning classroom environment.  Tell them about your dream classroom and encourage them to think about behaviors that lead to your dream classroom.  Collaborate with students.  Make them part of the “rule-making” process, and they will be more likely to follow the rules.  If they break the rules, it will require only a gentle reminder instead of an all-out battle.
3. Think About Ways to Incorporate Project-Based Learning

This post gives you all the basics you need to start project-based learning in your classroom.  If you haven’t heard of PBL before, here’s the gist: using real-life application and or research to solve a potential real-world problem or something of equal complexity.  In The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Project-Based Learning, I talk about what PBL is, why it’s important, and how to incorporate it.  Here are the highlights:
1) Why?
     -Students are more engaged
     -Students acquire a number of life skills
     -Students learn better
     -Students of all learning levels and abilities can be successful
2) How?
     -Click on this article for ideas.
     -You can visit the Buck Institute’s website for a number of resources to get you started.
One fairly universal project would be a class store.  Read below for details that comply with PBL criteria from The Buck Institute:
Class Store

  • Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills– As part of a lesson on goods and services, students will learn how to be producers and consumers.  They will use basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division skills in setting a budget for their “store.”
  • Challenging Problem or Question– Students must determine how their business will make money.
  • Sustained Inquiry– Students will do research on successful businesses and how they succeeded.  They will learn how to conduct research on interest level of their product among their peers.
  • Authenticity– Everyone in life has to learn how to make and manage money.
  • Student Voice & Choice– Students will choose a product to make based on their interests and experiences
  • Reflection– When the project is complete, students will write a conclusion that states what they learned, what they thought was beneficial, and what they would change.  Maybe they list factors in their success or failure, and opportunities for improvement.
  • Critique & Revision– Similar to reflection, students will self-assess based on their experience.
  • Public Product– You can either work out a deal with the school where students make their store school wide, or they can put together presentations to explain their learning experiences to a wider audience.  If you so desire, you can have a class blog where they write an article about what they learned and what they would change.
To read specifics about implementing, you can check out the post by clicking the link above.
4.  Teach Concepts Instead of Processes

The best example I can think of for this is tying shoes.  I was a sub for awhile and every Kindergarten class, sometimes first grade class, had students who couldn’t tie their shoes.  I didn’t want to waste precious time teaching them to tie their shoes, so I just did it.  Obviously I don’t advocate taking 20min every time your student needs his or her shoes tied to teach him or her.  That’s highly impractical.  The sentiment I’m trying to convey is that it is often easier for us to hold our students’ hands through the process of learning, than to guide them through their own individual processes of learning.  In my post, 3 Steps to Easy Comprehension for All Learners, I explain that every child learns differently and while many of us try our best to hit every learning style, we are still faced with those students that just don’t get it.  What if we allowed those students to think through things on their own?  They would devise their own methods for learning and learn more about themselves in the process.  Not to mention, less work for you!  Here’s the idea:
The best practical example I could devise is teaching Math, so these examples are about basic operations:

You Teach– Teach students what addition is.  Addition is one thing or group of things added to one thing or group of things. 
Make it relatable: Ask students if anyone has been told they’re getting an addition on their house, or new addition to their family.  What does that mean?  If we get a new student, he or she is an addition to our classroom. 
Model it: Ask for a group of volunteers to demonstrate.  Put a group of students together(size based on skill level of your students, maybe 5.)  Ask how many kids are in the class.  When the students answer “5,” write a 5 on the board.  Have a “new student” join them, and write a +1 on the board.  Ask how many kids are now in the class.  Students will hopefully count instinctively and answer “6.”  You will then write =6 next to 5+1.  This way they can see how real life translates into a math equation.
Use the Teach-OK method from Whole Brain Teaching with this sharing of information to ensure the students understand.  Once this is complete, class instruction time is over. 
Students Teach– Put students in groups with an equation to figure out.  Give them the opportunity to devise a solving strategy as a group using any method they like.  Make sure you limit the number of groups as the students will be presenting their strategy to the class.  They can draw, use people, make models, use blocks, or whatever it is they desire.  You can do this as a center and present later or as a whole group time and present immediately after.  This process serves as a mini-project based learning experience in which students are finding the answer for themselves.  They will naturally differentiate on their own based on the way they rationalize and conceptualize.    
Individuals Teach Themselves–  Give students a short list of equations to solve.  Individuals can choose any method they like from the class presentations or develop a new method.  If you see something new from a student, encourage him or her to share it with the class.  His or her method might make more sense to someone else.       
Here’s a real-life scenario:

Answer A
Student: I don’t get it.
Teacher: Ok, well if you have a group of 5(model with your fingers), then you add 1(model with your fingers), how many is that?(gesture for the student to count your fingers).


Answer B
Student: I don’t get it.
Teacher: Ok, what is the number 5?  Think about what we did during carpet time.  What did I say the number 5 is?  You might even ask the student to tell you what the number 5 represents.  Is it 5 puppies, pencils, friends?  If you know of a student who can demonstrate a method well, have him or her assist the struggling student. 

5. Motivate Rather Than Dictate

This is very similar to the post about avoiding the principal’s office.  In #1 Reason to Motivate Rather Than Dictate in the Classroom, I explain how it’s important to apply a sense of student responsibility to every aspect of the classroom.  Consider this: Have you ever had a boss that spends 80% of their day, not only in your classroom, but breathing over your shoulder?  How about a boss that talks at you every single staff meeting and never pauses for feedback or questions?  Your boss is dictating, not motivating, and you hate it.  It’s stressful, and sometimes even insulting.  Now think about that boss you only see at review time.  He or she has spent time to time in your classroom, asking you questions and praising your efforts.  You sit together for your review and he or she says, “awesome, keep it up.”  Which boss makes you want to work harder?  Exactly! 
The two simplest ways to provide motivation in your classroom are as follows:
   1) Incentivize: Give your students a reason to work hard.  We do it for a paycheck.  What     do they to it for?  Their parents?  Their own sense of satisfaction?  What about those students who aren’t intrinsically motivated?  They’re going to need a reason to try and fear of failure may not be an effective reason.  Once you and your student/students have chosen a reward, help them visualize goals.  More details in the post.  Just click on the link above.
   2)  Encourage Independence:  Explain to your student, we’ll call him Fred, that he is responsible for accomplishing his goals.  Explain the consequences if he does not accomplish his goals, and focus on the benefits of accomplishing them.  Help him take ownership of his success and show him you are still available to him as a resource.  Consider your new role to be that of a textbook or search engine, or even a counselor.  You are there to guide and offer help when needed.  And of course, when he succeeds, PRAISE, PRAISE, PRAISE.
The #1 reason motivation is better than dictation is: It prepares your students for an actual job.  Think about it.  As we get older, we are expected to take more responsibility for, well, our responsibilities.  No one is there to give it to us step by step or remind us every day, hour, minute, to get it done.  We have to take ownership of our success, or we fail. Which brings me to Step 6:
6. Celebrate Failure

Whaaaaat? Lady you are absolutely out of your mind.  Failure is bad.  We shouldn’t celebrate it.  Hear me out, then you can decide how you feel about it.  I’ll start with a story of a little know-it-all who could never be wrong:
I was an “A” student.  My whole life, the Principal’s Honor Roll was standard for me.  This wasn’t because I was remarkable in any way, I just worked hard, and honestly loved to learn.  I was and still am a proud person, and couldn’t stand anything less than excellence.  It bothered me to my core to get a grade any lower than a B, and even that took some concession.  There were a few times I would get low grades, work harder, and ultimately bring them back up.  It was my failure that showed me there was more room to grow.


My straight “A” career may seem like the perfect academic success story until you start peeling away what those “A” grades did to me.  As I grew, it became increasingly difficult for me to accept failure.  Now, you’re probably thinking, “What’s wrong with not accepting failure?  Shouldn’t everyone strive for excellence?”  Yes and no.  The issue with my aversion to failure is that it soon became a stumbling block for growth in my life.  I wouldn’t set goals because I would fear not achieving them.  Why strive for something if you could potentially fail?

So as you can see, there are multiple points highlighted in this story:

1)  Failure pushes students to work harder:  If a student never encounters challenges, that student will never realize his or her full capacity for learning or achieving of any kind.  


2)  Failure makes students braver and more confident:  If a student never meets opposition, he or she will never grow.  There is an entire website called The Growth Initiative dedicated to the idea that adverse life experiences lead to a stronger and more positive person.  It makes sense doesn’t it?  Cliched though it is, Nietzsche’s claim that “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” is true.  Because once you have undergone a stressful or challenging life event, you realize something: You’re stronger than you thought you were, and there are higher priorities in life.    

3)  Failure is always an opportunity to learn:  How much more impact does an experience have on you when it is associated with failure?  For whatever reason, we have very strong emotions connected to failure.  It’s how we’re designed.  This PDF from Indiana University in 2009, addresses the negative effects failure has on individuals psychologically, and more importantly, addresses the result a positive outlook has on failure.  You can read another personal anecdote in the post, but essentially: When I was given the opportunity to do test corrections, it reduced the potential for further failure, because my brain created a sort of place marker where my error occurred.  Whenever I encountered the same material, that place marker triggered my memory with the correct answer.

The moral of this story?  Redefine failure in your classroom.  I encourage you to try something totally outrageous and please, please share your findings: The next time a few of your students fail a test, encourage a brave volunteer to stand up and share his or her “F.”  Rather than feeling shame, encourage your student to celebrate. Explain that you are celebrating this “F” because it means your student has an opportunity to learn and grow.  Use this time to remind students that failure is a part of life and it’s what we do with it that’s important.

Ta, daah!  You are finished with the entire How to Be An Educational Superhero series.  Again, as I said, we will be providing a PDF of this post to our subscribers this Friday, so make sure and sign up!  Please also know that we are not the “great and powerful Oz,” writing to you from an undisclosed location, never to be seen or talked to.  Just as we encourage you to do, we want to motivate and not dictate.  Collaborate with us if you hit road blocks.  Your experiences will surely benefit someone else.  Thank you very much for tuning in and we look forward to bringing you more.  Next week we’ll be talking about how centers aren’t just for little ones.

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