Educational Theory, Social-Emotional Learning

Welcoming Values into the Classroom

Beginning in April 2019, I forayed into the world of freelance curriculum development and consulting. I’d had experience in this realm before, minus the freelance part, and had a blast getting to know a few educational companies more in-depth. One of these awesome organizations I worked with (and continue to!) is Sole Girls.

Sole Girls is a girls empowerment program that tackles self-esteem, physical and emotional health, and running through after-school programs, workshops, camps, and mentorship. Sole Girls was conceived by super-inspiring Canadian social entrepreneur, Ashley Wiles, in her late 20s. Ashley was impelled to take action after hearing about the tragic suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd, a teenager in Coquitlam, B.C. who was bullied, alone, without an advocate, and without the perspective of another way out. Ashley had been traveling the world working for a variety of organizations unsure of next moves, and after hearing about Amanda Todd, knew she had to come back to Canada and start a program that could support and empower girls while equipping them with skills and tools to navigate the frequently messy Girl World. And thus, Sole Girls was born.

Sole Awesomeness

Sole Girls works with females (and has a Sole 4 Boys program, too!) ages 5-12 through a 9-week curriculum, which is guided by the acronym S-O-L-E (Support, Open-Minded, Love, Enthusiasm) and culminates with a 5km run. The 5km run adds an element of challenge, forward-thinking, and bravery…all of which are absolutely transferable to social-emotional learning.

In addition to developing a variety of interpersonal skills, self-discovery, and running, Sole Girls also provides girls with a safe and encouraging community where they can share freely their experiences, questions, and connect with mentors ranging from high school to adulthood who play a diverse role in the programs’ communities. Six years of age, Sole Girls runs across Canada and has begun programming in Australia, as well.

I had the great privilege of working with Sole Girls, beginning in September 2019 in a variety of creative capacities, including leading programs (coaching) for both the Littles (ages 5-7) and regular (8-12) programs, curriculum development, and workshops.

…wait, can we bring this back to me for a second?

These programs are so special to me. As a kid, I never quite fit in, and I moved from a Montessori school to a public school and while I lived to tell the tale, retrospectively, I was thrown to the sharks. “Fitting in” was a totally new concept to me (made 0% easier by my strange obsession with growing a rat-tail and my parents’ wholeheartedly supporting nearly any form of said personal expression; side note- WHY, MOM AND DAD, WHY!? Jk- I love you); at my old school, all the kids played together, and for the first time, I experienced and saw that kids could be left out, which was jarring and confusing and really had no way of understanding any of it. I survived, yet constantly felt awkward, never knew when to “tell” on a student, and never knew what to do in the face of gossip or teasing. In short, I really had no clarity on my values.

And this is precisely why I adore Sole Girls programming, which takes a values-based approach in its curriculum and is also implicit in its mentorship programs.

But, I’m not really qualified to talk about that stuff…right?

Talking “values” with students might seem intimidating or “something they can do with their counselor,” but think about it. As educators, we learn about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs starting in day 0 of any training, so we know that students have needs they need met before they can master counting to 100 or writing a 5-paragraph essay or shooting a free-throw (pick your teaching poison). Specifically, these needs are Basic (which are physiological & safety), followed by Psychological (Belongingness & Esteem), and finally Self-Fulfillment…which, let’s be real, do we ever really attain?

https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
Photo courtesy of: SimplyPsychology.org

If we want to reach our students, we’ve got to meet them on this triangle first and foremost, before we think about behavior adjustments, learning support, and calling home, it’s worth seeing where students are feeling in regards to how they feel about their friends, their learning communities, and themselves.

Teaching values need not be complicated or deeply emotional. Introducing a word or theme of the day/month/week/year is a simple way to help students start learning about values and unlocking or further developing their own.

Okay, maybe I’m on board.

So, what are examples of values you may be asking? Here’s a few:

      • Gratitude
      • Friendship
      • Trust
      • Responsibility
      • Creativity
      • Optimism
      • Compassion
      • Kindness
      • Integrity
      • Curiosity
      • Craftsmanship
      • Enthusiasm
      • Honesty
    • Sincerity

…and so on! Chances are, some other words or values were sparked when you scanned the list. Using these words in grades or assessments, as well as at morning meetings and/or advisory periods is an easy way to incorporate more meaning into the academic schedule and help students’ navigate and further clarify their needs for belonging and esteem.

As it is February, a simple way to incorporate values into your classroom is with a fun resource I made for Sole Girls this year: VALUE-tines!

These simple, (free printable!) cards are an alternative take on Valentine’s Day, in which students can recognize and celebrate the values they see in one another. Have each student draw a name and create a VALUE-tine for a member of the class; or have small groups work together to create a VALUE-tine for someone who works at the school; or trade VALUE-tines with another class. Get creative! Remember to model yours first!

  • What are your top 5 core values?
  • Have you used values in your classroom?
Must-Reads, Recent + Research-Based

Reflections on My Edutopia Binge (Part 1)

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Anyone else been following Edutopia’s “How Learning Happens” video series? I just tuned in this week and have been binge-watching the series.

I’m hooked.

What’s the deal?

In Edutopia’s own words:

“More than a year in the making, the series explores teaching practices grounded in the science of learning and human development. The videos highlight the importance of a safe, nurturing school environment and positive relationships with peers and adults. Get an inside look at practices that build students’ academic confidence and foundational skills such as problem-solving and self-regulation.”

In my own words:

This series tackles the question of how holistic learning actually happens. Rather than remove all of the variables of a student’s experience (social dynamics, past trauma, and so on), these videos embrace them. They provide tangible strategies on how to leverage social-emotional learning across all subjects, grade levels, and classrooms.

Tell me more!

The series contains 5 major topics, which follow a robust introduction:

  • Cultivating a Belonging Mindset
  • Fostering Positive Relationships
  • Building Academic Confidence
  • Developing Foundational Skills
  • Establishing Positive Conditions for Learning

Within each of these topics is a series of videos that share background information, highlight successful strategies in action from real schools (read: real teachers and students). The videos are quickly digestable, relatively short, and provide small steps that can be taken in individual classrooms.

From the perspective of an educator, the strategies pack a punch. They are simple enough to use in your classroom without the pomp and circumstance required for a overhaul (a la flipping the classroom), yet powerful enough to make a remarkable difference in the classroom.

Talk Moves, a strategy fostering safe participation practice, speaks to this. In theory, small group discussions are a great idea, but unless each student is given the same set of expectations and opportunities, it’s no different than any other squeaky-wheel conundrum (one student does all the talking because they perceive no one else will; everyone else is afraid or indifferent to talk because they perceive the talker to have established the vocal territory in the class as theirs).

Talk Moves is a strategy that puts all students on the same playing field, whether they are gregarious or more reserved in sharing their opinion. It gives students shared vocabulary- and more importantly, shared strategy- on how to engage in dialogue. As educators, we can make the error of assuming all of our students know the rule of dialogue– that participation is the goal and however you insert yourself is the strategy. But, what about the students that come from an entirely different set of cultural norms and thus, conversational rules? Perhaps it’s impolite to offer your opinion before being asked. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable and uncouth to debate at all. Or perhaps a student identifies as an analyst– one who prefers to hear all opinions and facts before they decide.

Not convinced? See for yourself:

In short, this is one strategy that allows students to bring their own experiences, ideas, opinions, and backgrounds into a discussion. It serves as the map to help students dive deeper together, (mostly) eliminates competition and judgement, and creates pathways to community. (Side note: interested? Use the free template in your own classroom!)

What’s the point?

If the whole series was just Talk Moves, it wouldn’t be particularly compelling as a series, and the video series encompass a broad range of strategies and approaches, all primarily rooted in social-emotional learning and it’s unequivocal connection to the science of learning.

Check it:

My main takeaways are:

  • A child’s brain is exceptionally responsive to experiences and relationships
  • Relationships and experiences affect brain development
  • Adversity can lead to uneven development of foundational skills (think self-regulation), which will in turn affect more advanced skills required in contexts of learning; in contrast, belonging and safety can help flourish these skills
  • Intentional skill-building aids in developing both foundational and advanced academic skills, creating whole learners
  • Classrooms with manipulatives, tools, and collaborative tasks build foundational skills and encourage social-emotional learning

The video is introduced by Dr Pamela Cantor, the founder and Senior Science Advisor for Turnaround for Children. In her words:

“The 20th-century education system was never designed with the knowledge of the developing brain. So when we think about the fact that learning is a brain function and we have an education system that didn’t have access to this critical knowledge, the question becomes: Do we have the will to create an education system that’s informed by it?”

Well, that’s a hard-hitter, isn’t it? Cantor is also part of an expert cross-disciplinary team studying the science of learning and development, and has dove deep into the role nurturing plays in educational settings…and how this actually affects the very nature of a child.

Cantor is also the founder of Turnaround for Children, an organization that began following 9/11 attacks “to address the impact of trauma on New York City public school students,” per the website. Indeed, trauma-informed practices are a central tenet in the series.

Trauma-informed teaching strikes me as equal parts essential, relevant, heartbreaking, and uplifting. We see growing acts of abuse, violence, and cruelty around the world, but especially so in the USA with 288 school shootings and no efforts to stop them. It’s true also that trauma, social-emotional learning, and a holistic perspective of a child’s experience inside and outside of school are finally recognized as critical pieces to the learning puzzle and that these types of initiatives are truly tying it all together and creating effective and powerful strategies teachers can use in their classrooms everyday, regardless of the subject or grades they teach.

What’s Next?

I can’t possibly recap the entire science of learning initiative into one post, so a series of my Edutopia Binge is forthcoming.

*

  • Have you binged on this series?
  • What strikes you as most relevant in your classroom or setting?
  • What did the series nail, and what did it leave out?

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[Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash]

Curriculum, Instructional Tools

UbD is A-OK with me!

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I read once that you should never explain or offer a disclaimer for your own writing.

I’m also not one to always play by the rules.

And, so:

Disclaimer 1: I’m completely on-board with Understanding by Design. I’ve used this planning framework frequently and con gusto (though rarely to its full capacity– never took the time to write out an entire WHERETO in real life) in my own professional development as a teacher. I’ve also found it quite helpful to revise some of my old lesson plans to fit within UbD frameworks.

Disclaimer 2: I will always be intrigued by the critical perspective of any idea, no matter how wonderful it seems and how well it works for me. Call me a cynic! But a learned one, ever-inspired by curiosity and the pursuit of teaching excellence. 

This week, I’m thinking about Understanding by Design framework and lesson plans that follow this format. Need a refresher on what exactly UbD is? Read Chapter 1 (free) by its creators! Not into reading (what are you doing on this blog!?)? The lovely Avenues: The World School has the YouTube version of UbD champion, creator, author, and researcher Grant Wiggins himself.

Since I’m not actively in the classroom at the moment, I paged through a few lessons, which, as I said, are close-but-not-exactly in the UbD framework. As I worked through the UbD framework, I thought a little bit more about lesson plans that are drastically different than UbD (think- worksheets, prescribed activities with little flexibility, etc.). And, during this unit, I found myself naturally wondering:

  • Is there pedagogical opposition to UbD?
  • If so, why is UbD pedagogically opposed? (this excludes motivation-based resistance to UbD, aka- I’m too lazy excuses, and refers principally to educators/administrators who are aware of and not bought in to UbD)
  • Are there emerging alternatives or competing strategies to UbD?

After a brief internet search, I found several blog posts and personal opinion pieces critiquing UbD. I took a gander on beloved EBSCO, but couldn’t readily find a great deal of information on UbD critiques (much of the primary research is on a singular case study). Here’s a running list of the critiques I unearthed from the Interwebs:

UbD is a one size fits all for all subject areas.

-Shouldn’t the money and time for training teachers how to design a lesson using UbD be spent instead on deepening their understanding of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge? teachers need support in upgrading and updating their knowledge of content and pedagogy. These are things that cannot be addressed by simply changing the curriculum or changing the way of preparing the lesson plan, much more its format.

-No empirical evidence exists that states UbD is effective

-teachers had a lot of difficulty in making a UbD-based plan

-appears to promote “teaching to the test”.

-I do not quarrel with the design steps laid out in Backward Design. My quarrel is with the sloganism. It is commonplace to begin any adventure by focusing on the outcome first.*

-The concern here is that in some quarters Backward Design is packaged and promoted as something new and innovative. There is nothing new about the concept of beginning the learning process with a clearly stated purpose and anticipated outcome for the learner.*

(* From the very entertaining and thorough blog of Dr Larry Creedon)

Perhaps the most compelling/cogent arguments I found were that it’s a time sensitive process and that there is a risk of teachers spending so much time with the process that it actually becomes less student-centered as a result. As a teacher, I have to admit that doing the ENTIRE process of UbD is cumbersome, and I’ve never been accountable to turn in lesson plans or even show evidence of my entire unit. Instead, it’s more of an encouraged process that we are given time for at the start of each semester. This looks like teaching teams coming together to get a big picture evidence of Steps 1 and 2, which include big ideas, essential and guiding questions, performance tasks (big projects and smaller assignments, as well as “Students will know” and “Students will be able to,” which are written as learning targets based on standards. This approach, I find, is quite sustainable and allows the planning to indeed be on the end in mind…which is exactly what it should be! If I were required to do this for each and every lesson, I’d likely burn out, focusing more on the final product (a lesson in a specific format) versus the process. The approach I’ve used also allows for a fair degree of flexibility and maneuverability.

I’m left wondering a few things:

  • When schools decide to implement UbD, what is the process of implementation? Is it every lesson plan? Are teachers held accountable for turning in a “portfolio” of all of their lessons?
  • What flexibility exists in a more rigid or traditional school with respect to UbD plans? Can a teacher readily pivot the curriculum, or are they “locked in” once they create a UbD unit plan?
  • Will we see empirical evidence on UbD soon? (a la Hatte’s comprehensive meta-analysis in Visible Learning)

When UbD is implemented in a school, what is the process? Does it come from administration? What is the teacher support? Is this often associated with a curriculum coach? (Here are many ways not to do it!)

[Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]