How kids’ voices can spark teacher learning

Why should educators listen closely to what students say? For the last few months, I’ve been posting here a collection of student voices from WKCD’s “Just Listen” series, organizing them into topics about which teachers care. It never fails to amaze me how right-on students are when they bring their real-life experiences to bear on those issues of teaching and learning.

So WKCD has started bringing these voices into workshops with teachers–and you can, too. Here are a few examples, in hopes that a faculty meeting might find them helpful as conversation-starters. Some examples:

Relationships that foster learning. We asked students, “When your teachers look at you, what do you think they see? When you look at your teachers, what do you see?” Kids tended to answer this question in terms of teacher-student relationships. Why not look together at this series of clips — and then ask a group of teaching colleagues, “What do you do to build relationships with students in the service of learning?”

Stretch, discovery, affirmation. When WKCD asked students, “Can you remember a time when something you experienced at school really made a difference to you or changed you in some way?” they often spoke of what we think of as “stretch” experiences. Take a look at this collection of student voices — then ask a group of teachers, “Have you seen students stretch, affirm, or discover themselves? What gave rise to that?”

“When’s the work good enough?” “Learning that lasts.” “Learning outside school.” Poring over 200 clips of student voices, we keep coming up with different themes as discussion prompts to spark thoughtful collegial conversations of the type we’ve see in our workshops.

So if you’re looking to focus a faculty meeting on a particular theme, drop me a line in the Reply box below. If we don’t already have a group of student voices on that topic, chances are that we can put one together and send you the link. Our goal is to get these voices heard, and get the dialogue started.

Of course, you can do the same thing just by bringing live students in to talk with faculty! But sometimes it’s easier to practice close listening with students you don’t see in class every day. “Just Listen” gives you a text to study closely, without preconceptions. (We’ll even provide a transcript if you like.)

Let me know how it goes!

How kids' voices can spark teacher learning

Why should educators listen closely to what students say? For the last few months, I’ve been posting here a collection of student voices from WKCD’s “Just Listen” series, organizing them into topics about which teachers care. It never fails to amaze me how right-on students are when they bring their real-life experiences to bear on those issues of teaching and learning.

So WKCD has started bringing these voices into workshops with teachers–and you can, too. Here are a few examples, in hopes that a faculty meeting might find them helpful as conversation-starters. Some examples:

Relationships that foster learning. We asked students, “When your teachers look at you, what do you think they see? When you look at your teachers, what do you see?” Kids tended to answer this question in terms of teacher-student relationships. Why not look together at this series of clips — and then ask a group of teaching colleagues, “What do you do to build relationships with students in the service of learning?”

Stretch, discovery, affirmation. When WKCD asked students, “Can you remember a time when something you experienced at school really made a difference to you or changed you in some way?” they often spoke of what we think of as “stretch” experiences. Take a look at this collection of student voices — then ask a group of teachers, “Have you seen students stretch, affirm, or discover themselves? What gave rise to that?”

“When’s the work good enough?” “Learning that lasts.” “Learning outside school.” Poring over 200 clips of student voices, we keep coming up with different themes as discussion prompts to spark thoughtful collegial conversations of the type we’ve see in our workshops.

So if you’re looking to focus a faculty meeting on a particular theme, drop me a line in the Reply box below. If we don’t already have a group of student voices on that topic, chances are that we can put one together and send you the link. Our goal is to get these voices heard, and get the dialogue started.

Of course, you can do the same thing just by bringing live students in to talk with faculty! But sometimes it’s easier to practice close listening with students you don’t see in class every day. “Just Listen” gives you a text to study closely, without preconceptions. (We’ll even provide a transcript if you like.)

Let me know how it goes!

Just Listen: Kids Talk About Their Struggles

Sometimes, Elijah told me, “people just don’t wanna come to school.”

Boredom, distraction, feeling invisible, staying on top of the work—students told me that these are among the struggles they face daily, even when they value their education.

Recognizing and respecting the challenge is half the battle. I hope you’ll want to share these clips with others!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series “When Kids Struggle”

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Just Listen: Students Tell What Makes Them Care

“It was cooler than a regular document that you’ll see in a textbook,” Amanda told me about a historical document she handled during her museum internship. “This is something I really wanna do and learn more about.”


In fact, kids usually care more about learning when they have some kind of stake in what they’re doing. Where does that stake come from? Just listen to the variety among these students’ answers!

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series.

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Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

Student teachers try the Practice Project

A remarkable experiment took place at the University of Michigan this past fall, when a group of student teachers in a class taught by Dr. Shari Saunders tried out the Practice Project in their classroom placements.

Many of this blog’s readers will remember the posts and comments of these preservice teachers here, as they puzzled through the questions of how to discover and build on their students’ strengths, create lessons that would connect with what students valued, and give them the deliberate practice they needed on the path the mastery. Many of you offered your own good counsel, as veteran teachers.

Shari Saunders described her curriculum when we presented together at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s annual Alumni of Color Conference in March. Now she has made available to others (in our Resources section under “Presentations and Handouts”) the assignments and rubrics she created for her classes.

Writing to me this week, Dr. Saunders said that her preservice teachers told her and others that the ideas they tried out here were among those they most remembered from their student-teaching semester. In this era especially, when teacher education is undergoing such scrutiny, this teacher educator and her students deserve our thanks for taking seriously the experiences, perspectives, strengths, and needs of students themselves—and for sharing that with us.

A road trip to motivation and mastery

“I’d feel so much better about the world we live in if being ‘passionate’ or ‘inspired’ was a national standard instead of so much of the academic trivia that is mandated,” a high school teacher in Oakland, California recently wrote me.

Working with 11th graders in his capacity as college advisor and internship coordinator, he was helping them explore how their own interests or passions could lead to further study and possible career choices. In the process, he introduced some video excerpts from the public television series “Roadtrip Nation,” whose motto is “Define your own road in life.”

Roadtrip Nation began in 2001 when four friends just out of college set out across the country in a green RV to interview people who loved what they did. Ten years later, it’s a movement—including a nonprofit arm that creates curriculum to help middle and high school students expand their vision and explore their futures.

The basic idea: Young people find what they love, contact people that live a life that inspires them, gather a team to interview those people in order to learn from their stories, and share these experiences with others.

They start by browsing through a vast video archive of interviews other youth have conducted with people that inspire them. They build the skills of interviewing and producing digital media. And they carry out their own local Roadtrips, planning and conducting interviews with leaders in their communities.

At-risk students who completed the curriculum at a youth opportunities center in Long Beach, California spoke about it with enthusiasm in this interview by local TV. And an independent evaluation of the curriculum highlighted positive changes in students’ attitudes toward learning after they completed the “Roadtrip Nation Experience”:

  • 15 percent more students reported feeling interested in their class work most of the time
  • 20 percent more students felt very certain that the things that they are learning in school will be relevant for their futures
  • 18 percent more students reported that they had very often talked with someone outside of school about their futures

To lift our country out of the mess we’re in, the rising generation is going to need all the inspiration and support it can find. For anyone who believes that motivation and mastery are closely linked, Roadtrip Nation is a great place to start the sparks flying and the minds meeting.

Bomb scare

A pre-service teacher wrote us this week after her solo student-teaching day was interrupted by what turned out to be a bomb scare. After the kids had been standing around for about 20 minutes, she struck up a conversation about fire-drill protocols with a girl nearby, someone whom she had noticed wasn’t doing well in math class, and rarely spoke up. “She told me that fire drills only take five minutes,” wrote A.B. “I shrugged, and then I decided that this would be a good time to talk to her.”

Starting with how much she hated math, the girl gradually opened up to talk about her life–a couple of difficult years in middle school, a transfer, friendship issues. A.B. writes:

She had no plans to go to college but she really enjoyed cooking. Her specialty — all types of chicken. I told her that I really hate cooking. So, now, that is our thing. We talk about what she made and what she intends to cook. It’s amazing how that one conversation has made her open up to me more and ask me questions when previously she had not said a word to me.

Back in the classroom, A.B. began to make more time to talk with other students. One was a boy who often slept in class, never seemed to do his homework, but could rip through problems at top speed when he was awake.

I told him that I was very worried about him and his success. After some pushing, he told me that he was working 30 hours a week but not to say anything to anyone. One other teacher let him do his homework during classtime, and he was able to get an A. A local college agreed to admit him if he got a 2.5 this year, and he’s keeping a C average by turning in a few homeworks now. However, since that discussion, he has been much more willing to talk to me about how things are going with my class and other classes. He has started to participate more in class, but he is not turning in homework assignments.

“One of these students lacks the confidence and the other lacks the motivation,” A.B. wrote, wondering how to use the information that they gave her to get them to perform at a higher level. I am struck by two things about her situation:

One is how powerful it is for students when their teacher simply reaches out to find out what is going on with them. The second is how much skill it takes to adapt our teaching plans so that each student is taking the next steps that he or she really needs (as homework or as classwork).

The second can’t be done without the first. So, if it takes a bomb scare to get the conversation going, grab the chance! It could open up your best thinking and planning ever for “deliberate practice” that’s geared for the individual—and your students might just join that thinking with you.

We’re collecting great examples of how teachers do such planning, to use in professional development workshops and to post as resources on this blog. Please send us yours–we’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to you for sharing your best examples with us all!

Robots for teachers

Am I the only one who gets a weird, sad feeling when I read quotes like these, in the recent New York Times piece on how well kids learn from robots?

Preliminary results suggest that these students “do about as well as learning from a human teacher,” said Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. “Social interaction is apparently a very important component of learning at this age.”

Ahh! And wouldn’t that make kids want to have more of that social interaction with a human adult who actually cared about them?

If robots are to be truly effective guides, in short, they will have to do what any good teacher does: learn from students when a lesson is taking hold and when it is falling flat.

Scientists could equip a machine to understand the nonverbal cues that signal “I’m confused” or “I have a question” — giving it some ability to monitor how its lesson is being received.

So shouldn’t new teachers also learn that, with those good teachers at their side? Instead, TFA runs a prestige contest to see which top grads can parachute in for two years, after a summer’s training, then leave for their real careers.

If robots can learn to learn, on their own and without instruction, they can in principle make the kind of teachers that are responsive to the needs of a class, even an individual child.

Parents may have more pointed [questions]: Does this robot really “get” my child? Is its teaching style right for my son’s needs, my daughter’s talents?

The right question. A teaching practice is profoundly human, to my mind the most honorable profession of all, with the most enduring effects. It depends on someone being able to “get” each child in his or her living, breathing, maddening, frustrating glory.

I just posted a wonderful example of this on our Resources page—a glimpse of how students are growing into strong and independent learners under the guidance of some wonderful adult humans at Phoenix High School, a small high school in western Washington State. You’ll see the projects these students imagined and executed, which emerged from their own individual affinities and curious minds. You’ll see the discipline their school fostered in them as the kids created every day’s work plan for themselves. And you’ll see the thoughtful back-and-forth they have with teachers like Tracy Money, as human and inspiring and honorable a guide as any of us could ask for.

I’m all for technology in learning, but after reading through that document, the thought of turning learners over to robots chills my blood. What about you? Please, write in and tell us!

When kids jump in to a challenge

What makes kids want to work at something hard? I was thinking about that the other day, as I watched an episode of the TV show “Parenthood” on Hulu. Max, who’s about 8, is seriously avoiding getting out there with his dad to work on his baseball skills. It’s easy to see that his over-anxious dad is pushing too hard—but when Max’s 14-year-old cousin takes the lead in tossing the ball around, Max brightens right up, and somehow learns to catch.

The scene rings true to what kids tell us in Fires in the Mind. When other kids they admire beckon them into a challenge, they’re much more likely to put in the effort.

Kellie, for example, first learned to jump rope with her playmates on the sidewalks of New York. Right away, the complicated maneuvers of Double-Dutch had her mesmerized. “The first thing I had to know was when to jump in, to get inside of the rope,” she said. “My sister helped me, by counting from one to three or five. I would jump in from the right side, between the rhythm of the ropes or the count in my head, and the rope closest to me had to be in the air. It would usually take me so long that the turners would stop turning and look at me!”

Kellie has so much to teach us here, about motivation and also about mastery. She saw something that looked amazing to her, and she wanted to do it — but it took her older sister’s encouragement for her to get up the nerve to try it. That first hurdle crossed, Katie immediately started breaking down the steps to getting it right, again and again. She was on her way to getting good!

Whether it’s a baseball game or a homework assignment, when have you noticed your kids getting past their reluctance to work at something hard? What drew them in? What happened next? I’ll send a free copy of Fires in the Mind to whoever leaves the most interesting answer in the Comment box below.

TIP! Watch for great models

“If I meet a musician I look up to, everything he says is like it was bolded out,” said Mike, a 16-year-old guitar player. Kids, like adults, get inspired to work at something when they see how amazing it looks when done well. We can boost their motivation and persistence by showing them models of great work, and introducing them to experts in our communities.