Professional Development Opinion

8 Essential Shifts That Made Year 13 Memorable

By Starr Sackstein — May 24, 2015 5 min read
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Throwing out grades. Writing books. Balancing blogs. Taking major risks to further the learning of all of my students. My 13th year has been an adventure.

Seeing my career through my current eyes is sometimes like Alice looking down the rabbit hole. The shades of me as a teacher at the beginning were building blocks but no longer recognizable in terms of day to day practice anymore.

This year changed my course forever.

Although several years leading up to now, got me to a place where taking risks and sharing them was possible, this year was the first of complete action without regret and with incredible purpose.

This year I realized in no uncertain terms who I want to be for my students and developed a way to be that authentic person.

Here’s what changed this year:

  • Student-centered learning and empowerment: Although I’ve always believed kids should be in charge, I’ve never actually given it all to them. They had choice before but never complete autonomy in terms of changing projects as they saw fit or grading themselves or helping me adjust curriculum based on their needs. It wasn’t lip service before, but it was only partial. I was too afraid to give up control completely. Now I have and I’ll never look back.
  • Traditional grading practices have been abandoned: This shift started a few years ago, but I still clung to the power that is a grade. Students need them and covet the high ones, so I, like many believed they were a motivating factor worth wielding. No longer a fan of that approach, I took the grade out and put the process in. Kids need to be able to talk about learning and not negotiate over grades. So we changed the conversation and are shifting the mindset. Many students put up with my changes, but didn’t embrace them. Next year, I have to try harder to help them understand why they no longer get grades and the impact it will have on their learning for life.
  • Reflection is an integral part of everything we do: Doing a task is important, but thinking about how we did the task and what we gained from it is equally important. This additional step has really helped me adjust my teaching to help each individual child. Rather than reading a paper or viewing a project from my eyes, I get to do it through theirs. Reading the reflection first tells me what they did and how well they feel they’ve done it. They can tell me what to look for and then I can provide the necessary feedback to enhance their individual learning and goal setting for what comes next. Reflection is an imperative step to metacognitive growth.
  • Mistakes are essential to growth NOT just for students and they are public: No longer shall we shun the wrong. Anything that goes a stray is an opportunity: for the students and for myself. We stop and evaluate as soon as it happens and discover why it happened and how it leads to more learning. Mistakes aren’t something to be afraid of. As a matter of fact, once you get rid of grades, kids seem more willing to take risks because they aren’t as afraid of not getting a good grade. Once this becomes a part of the mindset, everything is possible.
  • Risk taking is built into the curriculum to ensure maximum growth: We need to provide students opportunities to take risks. It starts with us saying “yes” rather than “no.” In years past, no was a big part of what I did because I controlled the learning. Students still achieved, but I was holding them back. Saying yes, is empowering; it gives students permission to try and fail and try again. Since it was their idea, they are more invested and don’t give up when it doesn’t work. Risk taking is the single biggest skill we need to offer our students. We should model it liberally and encourage it widely.
  • Technology is seamlessly integrated into the learning: No longer steering away from things I don’t do perfectly, I’ve begun to use and implement technology in everything we do. Not just as an add on, but as an integral tool for helping students develop as creators. Although the Google educational suite is vital to our communication of writing, apps like Voxer and iMovie have created new ways to really further learning. This coupled with Storyboardthat or Animoto, kids are really exploring new options for sharing ideas and learning. The technology is making more possible and the learning is exquisite. I will continue to try new programs and encourage students to do the same, to ensure all kids are working within and outside of their comfort zones to develop as thinkers and creators.
  • Digital Citizenship is an important skill in all classes: Twitter works so well for me in my professional learning that trying it out in class was a no brainer. So teaching kids to use it as a means of learning and communication was an interesting way to add transparency into our spaces. Class hashtags for backchannelling learning and blogging for literature has opened up the door of teaching kids to be appropriate on social media and how to be proud members of an online community. They also participate in live streams when I periscope from their classes. They are supportive and critical and appropriate. Next year, I will do this will all of my classes.
  • Collaboration is hallmark of student learning and my professional learning: We can’t hope for students to become great at collaboration in groups if we aren’t doing it too. This year I worked closely with two math teachers who shared sections of an elective with me. Their input and experience really enriched the growth and development of the class. We collaborate on ideas and then debrief in reflection. Students need to be doing the same thing. Sometimes the best ideas come in a brainstorm with colleagues and students need to have these kinds of opportunities too. This supports their independent growth.

Year 13 has been amazing. I’ve met personal milestones with my blogs and books, but more importantly I’ve witnessed tremendous growth in my students, most of which are more aware of that growth than years past.

What are you most proud of this year and what will you change based on your reflection? Please share

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