Who really wins?

When I think back on my education, there are a lot of things that I think I did wrong. This might come as a surprise to my family and friends who have always considered me to be a good student. There is no doubt I was a high achiever, and my academic success has certainly served me well in my life. My regret, though, has to do with my mindset.

What I remember most from my early school years is an intense focus on academic performance. I was always competing with other students and with myself. I remember feeling humiliated when my third grade teacher called out errors I made on a writing assignment, and I remember the pride at having my name on the top of the reading chart on the wall for the whole year in fourth grade. I was insanely jealous of a fifth grade classmate who was recognized for having the highest percentage in math class and vowed that it would be me the next quarter. From these and many other memories, I am sure I had a fixed mindset and wanted nothing more than to prove to everyone how smart I was.

As I progressed into higher grade levels, I got very good at what researchers like Denise Clark Pope call “doing school.” I excelled inside and outside of the classroom and checked all the boxes to get into college. It wasn’t until halfway through my undergrad years that I began to question my approach. I realized that I wasn’t as passionate as many of my classmates about what I was actually learning. Instead, I was coasting by in my courses, doing the minimum required to get the A and keep up the image of success.

What I really wish is that someone would have stopped me along the way and told me the truth: that school is not a game or a competition to win. I wish I would have learned to love learning for the sake of learning and not for some external award or recognition. Maybe then I would actually remember what I learned instead of forgetting it immediately after the test. Maybe I would have studied things that interested me more than just choosing assignments and classes that I knew I could ace. I can only imagine how much of a difference this could have made in my life.

Unfortunately, schools continue to be places where we encourage competition and academic performance. Too often, achievement is prized above learning and growth, and practices like honor rolls and class rankings perpetuate the idea that school is something that can be won. My current research on how students experience academic competition in high schools reveals that competitive classroom environments contribute to student stress and anxiety while fostering a performance goal orientation towards learning, especially in high achieving students. I believe teachers can mitigate the negative consequences of schooling by limiting competition in their classrooms and explicitly teaching about mindsets and the purpose of schooling.

It’s not about winning or losing. We all can win if we learn to love learning.

Faith Like a Child

Yesterday was Fat Tuesday, so my husband and I took our three kids out for a special dinner and ice cream treat. As we were waiting for our food, we started chatting about what we were going to give up for Lent. I asked first if they even knew what Lent was, and my five year old daughter said no. I was about to explain it to her but my almost seven year old beat me to it. He looked straight at her and gave the most beautiful explanation of the season of Lent- much better than I would have done! I was blown away by the depth of his understanding and the ease with which he retold what he had obviously learned in school about the Catholic faith. It reminded me of why we send our children to Catholic school.

It was like when my oldest son was in kindergarten and we went to get donuts for breakfast one Saturday morning. In the drive through line at Dunkin Donuts, I paid for the car behind me and his little voiced piped up from the back seat saying, “Mom, that was like an act of charity. That’s one of the seven virtues!” Or when my daughter in PreK goes to Adoration and tells me, “Jesus is in that bread. You can’t see him, but he is inside there!” Or when we were watching Shaun White in the Olympics the other night and talking about how talented he is, and my son says, “I bet God called him to be a snowboarder, like how He called Mrs. R to be a teacher.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my children and I am ridiculously proud of them. But this is not a post about them and the sweet things they say. Rather, this is a post about the power of teachers. I’m sure every Catholic school parent could give similar examples of the times they have been amazed at things their children have said and done as they grow in their faith. This is not by accident, but is a direct result of the dedication and positive example of Catholic school teachers. I am so grateful that my children have such excellent teachers guiding them in learning about and living the Catholic faith.

You may wonder if your students are really paying attention, or worry that they are not learning everything you are teaching them. It may be easier to remember the times they failed a test or forgot to turn in an assignment than the times that they showed a glimmer of understanding or repeated something you taught them outside of class.  Well, I’m here to tell you, you are more powerful than you know. Thank you for teaching children to understand and experience their faith in ways that will delight their parents. Truly, you are shaping lives and renewing the face of the Church.

Hitting the Reset Button

In teacher education, we often stress to beginning teachers how important it is to set up and practice solid classroom routines and procedures at the start of the school year. In fact, teachers are frequently told not to introduce any academic content for the first two weeks of  the year, instead dedicating that entire time to setting up classroom norms and practicing procedures until they become habits. I believe this is good advice. Strong classroom management and organization is essential for teachers to be able to facilitate student learning, and students benefit from a structured classroom in which they know what to expect and how they are expected to behave.

I also believe, however, that the beginning of the year is not the only time that this structure can or should be established. Sometimes it is necessary for teachers to hit the reset button in their classrooms. Perhaps a few months have gone by and procedures that were firmly in place at the start of the year have started to slip. Maybe students and teachers have grown bored with routines, or perhaps the norms and procedures implemented at the beginning of the year were never actually very effective for that particular group of students. In any case, teachers need not feel trapped by what was established at the start of the year.

In my first year of teaching, I listened to the advice of those who told me to be firm and consistent and set up a strong discipline system at the beginning of the year. It was effective and I had few classroom management issues. However, I was concerned that I did not have a way to recognize and reward positive behavior in my students and I was eager to infuse more joy into my classroom. I recall telling a colleague that the following year, I would be sure to include a positive behavior system as well. “Why wait until next year?” she said, “Your students would love this now!” And she was right. That weekend, I developed what I called “Miles of Smiles.” I taped a strip of posterboard to each student’s desk and bought a roll of smiley face stickers. From then on, anytime I caught a student making a good choice, they would get a sticker on their strip and once it was full, they could wear it around their head like a crown for the day before adding it to a chain we would display in the classroom. This became one of my favorite elements of our classroom, and I am so glad I did not wait until the beginning of the next school year to try it out.

If you are feeling like a change is needed in your teaching, whether it is a specific procedure that needs to be reconsidered, an additional element of your management plan that needs to be added, or even a change in your approach to an individual student’s learning or behavior, do not hesitate to make that change. You can make a change tomorrow, or you can wait until after the Christmas break when it may feel like a natural time to introduce a new process, since routines and procedures should be refreshed after a long break anyway. Simply explain that something was not working the way you wanted it to, or that you noticed an issue with whatever it is you are changing. Explain and teach the new procedure or element the same way you would at the beginning of the year, provide a rationale for why you are asking them to do things that way, and practice as necessary. Most students will appreciate that you are willing to reflect on your teaching and make adjustments to improve the classroom environment for everyone.

What mid-year changes have you made? How have they been received by your students? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

(If you look closely, you can see the chain of smiley “crowns” hanging across the board in my old classroom!)

Standardized Stress

Standardized Stress

Last week was a pretty momentous occasion for my oldest child. As a third grader, he spent the week taking his first actual standardized test (yes, it took a whole week). This might not seem to be too big of a deal to most people, but considering I wrote my dissertation on how teachers prepare students for standardized tests and the motivational implications of high stakes testing in schools, it was a big deal to me!

I was happy that the experience was not at all traumatic for my son. He took it like a champ and was mostly just excited for a week with no homework.

I know from my research on this topic that, unfortunately, the experience of taking standardized tests in school is not always as carefree for all students as it was for my child. The introduction of high stakes standardized testing can be stressful for teachers and for students, and can cause anxiety, boredom, and other negative reactions. In the face of pressure to achieve high scores, students and even teachers may be tempted to cheat, especially if teachers feel that their jobs may be on the line if students do not achieve sufficient scores.

Other negative consequences of the implementation of standardized tests include narrowing of curriculum to focus only on tested subjects, loss of instructional time spent preparing for and actually taking the test, and teaching directly to the test rather than teaching topics and issues that are important and interesting to teachers and students. Additionally, test scores are often misunderstood by teachers, students, and parents, so the emphasis on testing in schools seems even more arbitrary when the results of the tests are not even used in a meaningful way.

While these negative consequences of testing are widely acknowledged, there are important reasons why standardized tests are necessary as a means of tracking student achievement of grade level standards and year-to-year growth.  Federal education policies also mandate the use of testing to hold public schools and teachers accountable for student learning. Although private Catholic schools are not necessarily subject to the federal accountability pressure, they are often expected to share general student achievement results in order to market their schools as offering a high quality academic education.

So, since the practice of standardized testing is not going anywhere anytime soon, what can teachers do to minimize the negative consequences of testing for students? The answer lies in open, honest communication about testing and focusing on learning rather than performance.

Many students have questions and concerns about why they are being asked to take tests and what the tests mean for them personally, and some teachers inadvertently heighten their stress by emphasizing how important the tests are. Students hear rumors that doing poorly on the test means they will fail and have to repeat the grade or they think they will get in trouble or make their teacher mad if they miss a problem. Teachers can help by being upfront and honest with students about the tests-why they are taking them and how the results will be used. Even if teachers feel pressure to have students perform well on tests, it is unfair to transfer that pressure to students. Telling students that the test is low stakes for them personally can help alleviate their stress.

Rather than focusing on how important it is for students to do their best on the tests, teachers can send the message to students that the test is just measuring what they have already learned and helps to determine what they still need to learn. It is a tool for learning, not simply a measure of performance. This message affirms that learning is a process, not a product.

Testing does not have to be as frustrating and stressful as it often is for our students. Positive early experiences with testing can help shape students’ attitudes towards tests for years to come. Help young students learn to take the tests in stride and realize that learning is more important than performance.

Pray with Me

Pray With Me

With three young children, school day mornings can be busy and often stressful in my house. After waking the kids and coaxing them to the table, I play the role of the short order cook, serving breakfast while simultaneously packing lunches (because I just cannot make myself do this the night before!). Then it’s uniforms, brushing teeth, double-knotting shoes, and trying to get out the door while inevitably a hair bow is missing, or brothers are wrestling, or the dog chewed up another teddy bear and the day is starting off with tears and, more often than I’d like to admit, a fair amount of yelling.

One morning, after a particularly rotten getting ready for school experience, I buckled everyone into the car for our short drive to school and spontaneously began praying aloud. I asked God to forgive me (and the kiddos) for the rough start to our day and prayed for blessings on each of us throughout the day. I gave each child a chance to add their own intentions as well. I felt instantly better, and I knew my kids were getting out of the car in the drop off line with a sense of peace and feeling God’s love as they entered school.

I often encourage teachers to try spontaneous verbal prayer with or in front of their students, especially when faced with a challenging behavior situation. Students can sense when their teacher is getting frustrated. Imagine having a teacher pause, take a deep breath, and say something like, “Dear God, Give me patience today, as I am struggling to react positively to these students. Please help them to practice greater self-control and kindness. Amen.” Perhaps a small prayer like this will be enough to act as a warning of sorts to students and will curb behavior issues for the moment. Even if not, it will likely help the teacher feel calmer and handle subsequent discipline problems in a more productive way. More importantly, the teacher is sending a message to students about how to deal with frustration and difficulty by turning to God in prayer. Maybe some of the students will internalize that message and follow the teacher’s example by praying during their own times of struggle. This is a life lesson and coping skill that should be modeled for students as often as possible.

Since that day when I prayed aloud about our awful morning, we have continued to pray in the car on the way to school. I hear the click-click-click of seat belts and ask who wants to pray first. My children take turns praying for their family and friends and whatever worries are on their minds that day. It has become a routine that we all look forward to and I hope it is instilling in them the habit of turning to God to start their days.

 

 

Behavioral Mindsets

Behavioral Mindsets

Carole Dweck’s concept of growth mindset, or the belief that intelligence is changeable rather than fixed, has been widely embraced by educators across the country. I know many teachers who have spent quality time in these first weeks of the school year fostering a classroom culture that values taking academic risks and making mistakes in order to learn and grow. There are google searches and pinterest boards full of ideas for posters, anchor charts, and lesson resources emphasizing the “power of yet” and the importance of growth mindsets. Research shows that this kind of teaching can impact students’ mindsets and leads to more positive motivational patterns and subsequent academic achievement.

I wonder…what would a classroom be like if a teacher also embraced a growth mindset with regard to student behavior instead of just academics?

Too often, teachers focus on controlling and tracking student behavior with management systems such as color-coded clip charts or online behavior tracking tools. A student misbehaves and a teacher gives a warning and then a consequence, like changing their card to a different color and missing part of recess. Management systems like this convey a fixed mindset with regard to student behavior. Teachers assume students are going to make poor choices and when they do, they need consequences to deter them from continuing to make poor choices. This system has an end result of making students feel labeled as a “good” or “bad” color. Not only is this humiliating, but it is largely ineffective, as students typically continue their patterns of behavior regardless of the change in color. Why? Because they are not actually learning the skills needed to change their behavior and grow in character or in composure. Their behavior is being judged and tracked, but not necessarily taught.

If teachers approached classroom management with a growth mindset, they would begin with communicating a foundational belief that all students are capable of behaving appropriately. They would encourage students to use effective strategies to self-soothe, regain focus, and practice kindness to one another. They would help students identify gaps in their behavioral skills and work together to problem solve and actually learn the skills needed to succeed in school. Not because they want to stay on a “good” color, but because they want to grow and improve in all ways.

What does this look like in a classroom? How can teachers actually manage behavior without a system like a color chart to track it? First, it is critical to define classroom expectations and procedures that are taught and practiced to perfection at the beginning of the year, and rehearsed as often as needed. Additionally, students need rationales for why the rules and procedures are important for the classroom community. This can be accomplished by a teacher-led discussion or by student input into the rules and classroom norms. Then, when infractions do occur, students can be immediately reminded of the agreed upon expectations. After a reminder, if the unwanted behavior continues, this should be recognized as an opportunity for growth, just as a mistake on a math problem can be viewed as a chance to learn. The student should be given an opportunity  to reflect on the behavioral issue, perhaps in a designated notebook or on a “stop and think” slip that the teacher makes available. The teacher can then follow up on the student’s reflection and use it as a teachable moment to brainstorm solutions or coping mechanisms to put into place the next time a similar situation arises. When students later use the appropriate skills, their improvement in behavior should be recognized and celebrated with praise.

In Catholic schools, we believe in educating the whole child. To me, this means having a growth mindset towards behavior as well as academics. We can respect the dignity of our students and meet them where they are in their character and skills development as we help them grow to their God-given potential in and out of school.

 

Teaching Tolerance

In the wake of the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, knowing that racism and violence still have a prominent place in our nation is frustrating and embarrassing. I am acutely aware of my own white privilege as I write this, knowing that it is my place of privilege that allows me to just be frustrated and ashamed of this situation rather than imminently threatened and afraid. My heart goes out to those facing discrimination and violence and I pray for greater tolerance and love in our communities.

Much has been written in the news and social media over the past few days in response to these events while protests and counter protests are spreading across the country. Thankfully, many educators are responding by sharing resources and ideas for teaching lessons about Charlottesville to combat the white supremacist beliefs and promote the value of diversity while examining historical roots of racism (see hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, for example, and NPR Education). There are lessons and ideas for every grade level to address these topics and teach tolerance.

As I think about this from a Catholic education perspective, particularly for elementary schools, I keep going back to the question: What is it that our children need right now? As students are being welcomed back to school after summer vacation and are hearing various versions of news stories related to white supremacy and racial violence, here are some things I believe they need from teachers:

  1. Students need to feel safe. This is a big one. More than anything else, our youngest students need to feel protected and safe in and out of school when they hear scary reports of current events. Of course, we unfortunately cannot guarantee their safety at all times. What we can do is to help them understand that these protests are mainly isolated incidents and the adults in their lives, including their teachers, are going to keep them away from any potentially violent situations. While random violence does happen, we should not dwell on the possibilities and let the fear prevent us from living our lives. We can teach children to focus on the words of the Catholic embolism: “…In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” May they be comforted by this prayer and feel safe in God’s peace.
  2. Students need to feel that they belong. The importance of community cannot be overstated. All students need to feel that they are worthy members of the classroom community. Especially in Catholic schools, students need to know that they are all children of God and that every single one of them is loved. They need to know that we are made in the image and likeness of God to love one another, regardless of differences in skin color, ability level, appearance, or any other way that we may be divided. The beginning of the school year is the perfect time for teachers to build intentional, loving communities in their classrooms and to send a clear message to students about the ways they are to treat one another. Appreciating diversity is a natural implication of this inclusive community building.
  3. Students need to feel hope and a sense of responsibility for the future. This one is a bit tricky with young children, because they may not be ready to comprehend the evil of racism and hatred and the myriad ways it manifests in our society, nor are they immediately capable of effecting change on a large scale. However, it is never too early to help children understand that there are things in our world that are not perfect and that they can participate in making the world a better place in the future. We can model our own hope in the goodness of mankind and our trust that our precious students will grow into loving, caring citizens who will always work for peace, justice, and kindness.

As the school year begins this fall, I pray that Catholic school teachers will unite to provide students with what they need and teach them to love everyday. Love God, love others, and love learning.