Data Driven? Let’s Be Student Driven Instead


Data-driven. It’s a favorite buzzword among educators. In fact, boldly declaring your school or district to be data driven is meant to convey the seriousness of your approach to education. For those reading the term as part of a school’s motto, the words are intended as a statement of that school’s commitment to educational excellence. Similarly, sprinkling your conversation with the term among other educators becomes a way of demonstrating your educational savvy. But here’s the thing: data doesn’t tell you about the most important elements of your students.

Data doesn’t tell you how hard a student works, how many hours they spend figuring out challenging material, how much they care about their academic achievement. Likewise, data doesn’t tell you about a student’s caring heart, their commitment to the tasks they undertake, their dependability, their kindness or their integrity. In short, data tell you nothing about who the whole student really is but rather focuses on a small segment of their academic output to the exclusion of everything else. That’s neither a fair nor an accurate assessment, regardless of what the data indicates.

This is not to say that data has no value. Using it to determine students’ academic aptitude, for instance, enables teachers to discover their students’ strengths and weaknesses. That’s a good thing—particularly when the data becomes the basis for planning lessons centered on students’ needs. And that’s the point: Data should be used to help students, not produce bragging rights for a school or district. And certainly not to the detriment of students.

Instead, data can just as easily be used to skewer students, emphasizing their inabilities, highlighting their disqualification for the academic success they so ardently seek. Scores not high enough? Well, then forget about placement in an advanced class or having the opportunity to participate in elite academic programs and teams. Data can be the be-all and end-all of students’ academic lives.

The use of data as a measuring stick can also provoke anxiety in students. When standardized test scores, for example, become the determining factor for students’ educational future, without regard for progress, effort or other measures of aptitude, both the students and the school lose. In such instances, data, wielded as a weapon, bludgeons students, often encouraging them to surrender academically as achievement seems unattainable.

Educational buzzwords, along with the accompanying practices, will come and go. And the focus on data is no exception. However, in the meantime, let’s be student driven. need to Creating classrooms driven by students’ academic needs and interests, educators can renounce being driven solely by the implications of data. Students’ academic lives depend on this. And on us.

Do You Value Who Your Students Are?


When you receive your class list, it’s just a collection of faceless names. Nothing about the individual students shows up on that list. In fact, even if you review their records, which isn’t a true reflection of all that each student is anyway, you still don’t know the people who will be seated before you during the upcoming school year.

Records don’t tell you students’ goals and dreams; they don’t indicate students’ gifts and talents; they say nothing of students’ compassion or kindness. Those are the real elements that help to define students. Instead, each student essentially begins the school year with a blank slate.

However, as the year progresses, those blanks begin to fill in, adding color, depth and dimension to the picture that is each student. Getting to know students individually is what fills in the blanks. Discovering who they are, who they hope to become and what they bring to the table, so to speak, allows teachers to learn the details that make each student distinct from other students just as much as it builds positive relationships between teacher and students. It’s the discovery of those details that I always liked most.

That’s why the concept of “assets-based teaching” appeals to me, despite my dislike for education buzzwords. A popular idea right now, it basically means using what a teacher knows about students’ abilities and talents to reach and teach them.

If an additional language is spoken at home, for instance, learning and using a bit of that language is culturally responsive, validating the students’ culture. I found out that this particularly resonates with students when I learned to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in the languages of all my students who spoke other languages. Then, as I collected test papers or essays, I used the phrases. Students enjoyed teaching them to me as much as I liked learning and using them. It became a bond among us as well as a classroom tradition as the other students began picking up the phrases as well.

Allowing students to be the experts on topics in which they actually have expertise also nods to their abilities and talents. When I relied on the computer-savvy students to repair my computer glitches and encouraged well-traveled students or those who have lived in other countries to speak of their experiences as we discussed that part of the world, it gave students a platform for displaying their knowledge and for having that knowledge affirmed and appreciated.

Likewise, fostering an environment in which students feel free and safe to voice their fact-based opinions and to defend those opinions not only broadened viewpoints and empowered student voice but also nurtured nascent interest and careers in politics and public speaking. Those were students’ natural abilities that flourished in that setting.

So the question is this: Do you value who your students are? The only way to answer positively is to know each of them individually and then to create opportunities for the details that make each student unique and capable to shine. It’s just another way of reaching and teaching the whole child. Everyone benefits from the results.

Why Classroom Management Is Not the Answer


By Denise Fawcett Facey

In virtually every teacher education program, classroom management is a major emphasis. While it encompasses the order and structure for how everything is done in a classroom, the part that everyone seems to focus on is controlling students’ behavior. After all, the thinking goes, if you don’t control your classroom, you can’t teach. However, have you considered what that traditional view of classroom management really means? Here’s the general goal:

  • Straight rows of seated students
  • A quiet room, with students working silently
  • Students completing highly structured, explicitly defined assignments
  • Unquestioning obedience to a list of rules
  • Foregoing group work and partnerships to maintain order

You get the gist. Overall, order is the primary goal, and compliant students are a major objective. But here’s the thing: This focus on regimentation might effectively provide teachers control and compliance, but it also takes the joy, creativity and individuality out of learning. What you have left is a quiet room, which likely reflects both boredom and apathy. That’s not exactly a recipe for active, innovative learning.

On the other hand, perhaps quiet and compliance are precisely what you want. You have a lesson plan to complete, and all this collaboration and creativity often lead to noisy, messy classrooms. And you certainly don’t want that, do you? If this sounds perfect to you, I invite you to consider what learning really means.

Real learning entails noise and, quite often, mess. Both are byproducts of discovery, innovation and just plain engaged learning. In fact, without the first two, you are hard pressed to develop the others.

Moreover, here’s another fact: a compliant child is not a thinking child. Sure, an understanding of each teacher’s parameters as well as the benefits derived from working within them is essential to a productive learning environment. However, creating a highly regimented environment in which every step is predetermined and predictable, leaves students without any room for higher-order thinking — analysis, synthesis, evaluation, creativity. Equally bad, it’s simply not fun. And, yes, fun is a key to learning. It’s what propels lifelong learning.

So what’s the solution? Consider creating a classroom in which students learn to manage their own individual behaviors, working within a common construct. Rather than a long list of rules and regulations, for instance, a basic agreement to respect one another covers virtually all negative behaviors usually seen in class just as an agreement to put forth one’s best effort boosts academics. Together, those two rules incorporate practically any classroom eventuality.

Then, to keep students cognizant of what it means to demonstrate respect for others, social and emotional learning (SEL) makes a difference. The character development that SEL represents is the real replacement for classroom management. And while we’re at it, the tenets of restorative justice — its emphasis on repairing a relationship harmed by one person’s actions toward another, rather than on punishment for that behavior — go a long way towards fostering self-analysis and self-awareness that benefit both behavior and academics.

When you use SEL and restorative justice, you really don’t need to focus on discipline and punishment. Instead, you can focus on learning, which makes learning and teaching so much more productive and enjoyable.

Starting the School Year Right


By Denise Fawcett Facey

Now that the school year has been underway for several weeks everywhere across the country, how’s it going in your classroom? For some, your classrooms may be humming along. Both you and your students are enjoying the learning that occurs in your classroom. Fortunately, you’ve infused it with the right balance of ingredients that work for your students.

However, that’s not everyone’s story. Right about now, the struggle has become real for other teachers. Sometimes it seems that nothing is going right, and, even worse, that it never will. Keeping students on task, getting them actively engaged in learning and maintaining even a semblance of order, all at the same time, can seem like the impossible dream. In fact, it can be quite daunting. But there’s hope!

It all begins with building relationships. Creating an atmosphere of mutual respect, of valued students and of safety — physically and emotionally — is the underpinning for everything else that occurs in your classroom. These elements enable you to begin creating the sense of adventure that real learning encompasses. To get you started, here are a few tips:

  • Greet Students at the Door

    It’s such a simple act but one that makes a big difference to students. Standing at the door and greeting them as they enter sets the tone for what awaits them. This tells students that you’re happy to see them and eager to be with them. In short, your greeting says, “welcome.”

  • Learn Students’ Names

    Names are integral to students’ identities. That’s why learning them quickly and accurately matters so much. Yes, some names are truly complicated. However, asking, “Miss Johnson, would you pronounce your name for me, please?” enables you to learn the name and means so much to the student. It’s your second show of respect for your students. On the other hand, mangling students’ names serves only to publicly humiliate them, just as not addressing your students by name says they aren’t worth the effort. By learning their names and saying them correctly — and often — you reveal your value of their identity and individuality.

  • Make Few Rules

    No one wants to feel that everything they do is wrong. Yet, that’s essentially the atmosphere created when a long list comprises your classroom rules. Let’s cut to the chase: what really matters to you? The answer to that question forms the basis for the rules in your classroom. Respect for everyone else in the class and a willingness to work every day are the essentials. If you need more than that, be sure that it’s only a couple more and that they get to the heart of what really promotes learning and camaraderie in your classroom.

  • Create Continuity

    Having fresh, new learning experiences each day is part of what makes learning exhilarating. Yet there’s something to be said for structure. Students need to know what to expect in your classroom, basic parameters within which activities are carried out each day. Having procedures and an overall order to tasks and learning provides continuity from day to day. It ensures the structure and safety that students crave — even those who seem to rail against it — and allows creativity to thrive.

  • Be Authentic

    While there’s plenty of advice from educators, telling you to be stern from the outset, inflexible about rules and never to smile, forget all of that. Being your authentic self resonates with students. And, yes, they definitely know the difference. Being who you really are, sharing tidbits about yourself in an appropriate manner and being unafraid to be vulnerable, to admit mistakes goes a long way toward building a strong rapport with students along with trust and respect. Of course, all of these are ingredients for an authentic relationship as well.

Teaching is not an easy profession, regardless of how many people seem to think anyone could do it. But a few key understandings can transform the entire experience. The bottom line is that students want to learn and want to enjoy doing it. Creating an atmosphere for both makes all the difference for you and your students.

Why the Books in Your Classroom Library Matter


What was your favorite book as a child? Better yet, why was it your favorite? It likely resonated with you in a special way, was relevant to your individual life. That’s often why books become favorites. Unfortunately, many kids have to find those books outside of school, in libraries or bookstores, rather than in their own classrooms.

With the prominent role that technology has in education today, you might think that books have literally been put back on the shelves. That would explain why so many kids don’t find favorites in school. Yet that’s not the case. Books still abound. Even traditional textbooks are still used in many classrooms despite the increase in digital versions. What’s more, literature is still primarily read from real books, whether they are picture books in kindergarten or great literary works in high school. Still, many students never find a book that speaks directly to them.

The reason may well be in your own classroom library. Many students never see themselves reflected in those books. With white protagonists so often the standard and males the heroes, students of color and girls are left out. Yet, if these were just a few among an array of diverse books, there would be no issue. However, the impact as well as the implications are far reaching when such books are the norm:

  • Reinforces stereotypes – When white males are always the heroes in books, it advances the stereotype that girls and students of color aren’t capable of that role. This is detrimental to all students, as they all need to see girls and students of color in leadership roles.
  • Implies a level of inferiority – Similar to the negative impact of stereotypes, when students don’t see themselves reflected in books, the implication is that they are not worthy. Therefore, classroom libraries without a variety of students of color and a melange of cultures effectively deem them not noteworthy. Not only do the omitted students feel the sting of rejection and inferiority, but that viewpoint is adopted by other students toward them as well.
  • Denies students characters with whom they can identify – Lacking characters of the same race, ethnicity, language, culture or any other similarity leaves students without a character with whom they identify. This is particularly problematic when the book is read to the entire class in younger grades or assigned reading for older students. In such instances, the characters remain remote, their lives theoretical. While emotions and even some life experiences are universal, being able to identify with the characters makes literature more accessible to readers.
  • Limits students’ view of their options – Books, like movies and television shows, offer readers a view of potential choices. While students’ daily lives might not encompass certain careers, travels or artistry, books offer vicarious experiences. Reading of characters or real people depicted as lawyers, world travelers or ballet dancers, for instance, broadens students’ view of their own options. Of course, the reverse limits their view.

Education should both reflect who students are and broaden their definitions of who they can be. Diverse literature does both. That’s why the books in your classroom library matter. It’s also why they should encompass all that your students are, honoring and respecting them while also introducing them to one another. That’s just part of educating the whole child.

Building Classroom Community and Trust


Most educators know that students learn more with teachers who have a strong and caring relationship with them. However, what’s often overlooked, particularly on the secondary level, is the importance of equally strong and healthy relationships among the students. After all, students are people first, and people simply do best when they can relax, when they can trust those around them, when they can share mutual respect and even appreciation for one another. All of this builds a sense of community.

That’s exactly what elementary schools have traditionally been better at doing, with all the students remaining together Continue reading “Building Classroom Community and Trust”

Why Healthy Relationships with Students Matter


Opening my Facebook page recently, I discovered a lovely post placed there by a former student. It was a quote by educator Justin Tarte that read, “Teachers who put relationships first don’t have students just for one year; they have students who view them as ‘their’ teacher for life.” I really liked that. In fact, I’m smiling again just thinking about it.

Building bonds with my students and among them was integral to what I tried to do as a classroom teacher not only because I saw them as “my kids,” but also because I believe students learn more with teachers who genuinely care about them, Continue reading “Why Healthy Relationships with Students Matter”