Saturday, June 24, 2017

Creating Cultures of Thinking

Setting: The chemistry class for which I was a 4th quarter sub (see here for the longer story of how an English teacher managed THAT)
Me: What did you get for an answer to the next problem?
Student A: 2.4
Student B: 33.5
Student C: 0.22
Me: So, explain to me why you think your number is the answer.
Long pause
Student C: This is just like English class!  

I believe education—whatever class a student is in—should be not just about right answers, but about knowing how we got them so we can figure out when things go wrong, what we need to learn next, and how we can learn it so that we can tackle the progressively harder problems of real life with confidence, competence, and creativity. Ron Ritchhart calls this a culture of thinking. I just finished reading his book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, and I loved that it gave me a framework for thinking and talking about what goes well in my class and in my school, and how to help more of that good stuff happen both places. 

We all know that, by itself, changing a textbook, a set of standards, a curriculum, an instructional strategy won’t increase student learning (though it will increase teacher cynicism!). What will increase student learning? Changing the school culture. If we believe differently, we will act differently. These do go hand in hand—you can believe your way into action or act your way into belief. You can implement an instructional strategy and see it elicit thinking in a way you want to know more about and see become the norm for your students; you can desire a culture of thinking and gradually learn what attitudes, strategies, and practices will foster it. I think of belief and action as the blue and yellow that make the green of culture. 

So how do we change school culture from one of right answers to one of thinking? Ritchhart names 8 forces: expectations, language, time, modeling, opportunities, routines, interactions, and environments. I’ll give a brief summary or highlight of each, and I really hope it does whet your desire to read the whole book, talk about it with your colleagues, and create a culture of thinking in your school and in your classroom:
  1. Expectations: This is about our beliefs as they affect our behaviors, such as promoting learning rather than work, understanding rather than knowledge, independence rather than dependence, and growth rather than fixed mindset. I began this book last summer and this cultural force really struck me (see this blog). During the ensuing year, I changed the daily headings on my board from “agenda” and “homework” to “learning plan” and “independent learning.”
  2. Language: The words we use might seem insignificant, and yet they subtly but powerfully convey our beliefs to our students. Ritchhart breaks it down into the language of thinking (see above), community (using “we” rather than “you”), identity (speaking of the students as readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, historians, etc.), initiative, mindfulness, praise/feedback, and listening.
  3. Time: “Learning to be its master rather than its victim” is Ritchhart’s chapter subtitle. Two points that interested me were prioritizing (we often do it by default rather than intentionally—see Stephen Covey’s classic “big rocks”) and managing energy, not time (we have only so much time, but there are activities within time that are energy boosts or energy drains—like meeting with students vs. writing comments we aren’t sure will even be read).
  4. Modeling: “As a culture shaper, modeling operates on both an explicit and an implicit level. Explicitly, we may demonstrate techniques, processes, and strategies in a way that makes our own thinking visible for students to learn from and appropriate. Implicitly, our actions are constantly on display for our students. They see our passions, our interests, our caring, and our authenticity as thinkers, learners, community members, and leaders. Adult models surround students and make real a world that they may choose to enter or reject” (115). At my Christian school, we talk about teachers as the “living curriculum.” This works in our subject areas as well as in our faith life and ethical practice. It’s also a chapter out of the last faculty book discussion I was a part of. 
  5. Opportunities: The tasks we design for students—from daily activities to larger assessments to long-term projects should be not just “work” (see expectations and language) but opportunities to learn. Ritchhart gives examples of a 12th grade English class creating a math equation involving selecting and weighting character traits for Othello, a 9th grade social studies class using VoiceThread to synthesize learning on migration, and an elementary music class creating songs to sell to support music classes in other schools. The takeaways for any class opportunity are novel application, meaningful inquiry, effective communication, and perceived worth.
  6. Routines: Ritchhart’s chapter subtitle is “supporting and scaffolding learning and thinking.” He mostly illustrates how one thinking routine (Claim-Support-Question) is used in a variety of levels of math classes (kindergarten, 2nd grade, 5th grade, and secondary). I think this is the heart of his earlier book Making Thinking Visible, which is on my to-read for later this summer. 
  7. Interactions: We set the pattern, interacting with students by asking good questions (not just procedural and review, but ones that deepen thinking and connections and elicit support) and pressing for thinking. We help students interact with each other in the same way by training them in roles and norms. (I loved these norms: “contribute to group work and help others contribute, support ideas by offering reasons, work to understand others’ ideas, and build on one another’s ideas” (220).
  8. Environments: The chapter subtitle, again, says it all: “Using space to support learning and thinking.” There is, of course, the seating—the default setting of my desks is in pods of 4 for collaboration, and if students ever walk in and see another arrangement, they freak out. Unexpectedly, this chapter revealed another insight into my 2016-1027 school year: I loved my room. It’s the first time I’ve had my own room in many, many years, and being a nomadic teacher has its advantages (like many collegial connections). And my room was nothing special design wise. But it was mine. And as the year progressed, the walls became covered with our learning—vocabulary words, group projects, books read, poems written, group thinking. From this chapter I got the okay that it wasn’t all beautiful display, and I got a word for why it works and made me happy: curation of learning. (See photos below.)

One of my happy spots is in a book discussion with other faculty members, working out how we can do an even better job of helping students learn. Another is in a class where students are learning and helping each other learn. Ritchhart gives a name to those settings: cultures of learning. Read the book, talk to someone about it, and be a part of helping them happen even more frequently for more of our students.

Friday, June 16, 2017

What an English Teacher Learned from Teaching Chemistry

When Kim Essenburg woke up one spring break from unsettling dreams, she found herself changed in her bed into a chemistry teacher….

Not that chemistry teachers are anything like cockroaches—in fact, after a quarter of teaching chemistry as a long-term emergency sub, this 30-year veteran English teacher has a heightened respect for the variety and depth of knowledge and experience of all of my colleagues in all of their fields. My quarter of chemistry teaching also helped me appreciate my own expertise as an English teacher. Finally, I was intrigued by the ways good teaching is the same and different from discipline to discipline. Still, as I scribbled equations on the whiteboard, it did feel a little Kafkaesque.

The world intrigues me. From quarks to cultures, it is an amazing place. And reading is my entry to it all: from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. So, I figured, there are books about chemistry. There is YouTube. I had a year of Chemistry 101 thirty-four years ago when I was an indecisive college freshman. Certainly I can model a growth mindset and somehow tap into all that learning!

Chemistry is fascinating. If it is incredible that all of English literature, from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare, is made up of various combinations of 26 letters, then it is even more incredible that everything in the physical world is made up of various combinations of 3 particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. I psyched myself up by re-reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I discovered amazing online resources from Khan Academy to TED-Ed’s Interactive Periodic Table.

And when I collected my first worksheet, the students seemed to think the point was getting the right answer rather than understanding how to get it. I realized simultaneously why I don’t do worksheets in English, and that it is my experience with teaching English that enables me to create assignments that are meaningful enough to spark engagement, creative enough to defy plagiarism, and still target important learning goals. I didn’t have that kind of experience in chemistry.

Another thing experience gives is the ability to explain even complex things simply, in multiple ways, while anticipating novice misunderstandings. If a student doesn’t understand satire, I have 5 other explanations and 10 other examples, both from literature and from life. If a student doesn’t understand the common-ion principle, all I can do is repeat the one explanation and one example I got from the textbook. 

For comic relief, there were a couple of interesting “when your science teacher is also your English teacher” moments. Like when I was clearing up confusion over what the capital K I’d written on the whiteboard stood for—I’d tried to make it look italic, which means equilibrium constant, but some students didn’t recognize that and thought it meant degrees Kelvin. I said, “How do I make it italic?” One of my English students volunteered, “Underline it! Underlining is italics!” (Well, yay they finally got that, and I won’t see Works Cited pages any more with mixed underlines and italics, but I’m still not sure the proper way to do it in science.) There was also the time I asked an English class to list the 7 reading strategies we’d talked about, and a student said, “All I can remember are the 3 you had us use on the nitrogen-fixing reading in the chemistry book.” (At least he remembered 3….) 

I tried to connect the learning to life. We read about chemistry professionals, researched for presentations on topics from the Nobel Prize for Chemistry site that interested us, and watched Chemistry Life Hack videos. (I discovered that even with chemistry life hacks, interest has to be calibrated to the students. For example, here in Okinawa, Japan, where many people don’t have ovens, there was little interest in the one on baking soda life hacks, but there was high interest in the videos on the chemistry of wasabi and how to treat a jellyfish sting!)

I used as many engaging teaching strategies as I could—I gave choice on an independent module reviewing gases or exploring nuclear and organic chemistry. They worked in groups to understand and complete the modules. To review chemistry vocabulary for the exam, I assigned each student in a class 5 words to create Freyer models for and orchestrated reciprocal teaching. 

My students learned about chemistry. I did, too. In addition to learning about chemistry, I also learned about teaching—how much I love teaching English and how 30 years of experience really helps, how much amazing knowledge and experience my colleagues have who can engage and challenge students in other disciplines. And I wonder what we can learn from each other about constructing meaningful learning opportunities; teaching skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and communication in the context of each discipline; and creating a culture where students see challenge as an opportunity to grow.

Khan Academy just sent me an email: 

Kim Essenburg, 
We missed you this past week! Be sure to come back regularly and continue learning!
If you make a mistake, it's an opportunity to get smarter!

It made me laugh out loud. Yes, it was a week without Khan Academy. They might have missed me, but I didn’t miss them. Still, those are a couple of great thoughts to bring to all of our students next year: Continue learning, and If you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to get smarter.