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Reconfiguring the 5-year plan: Right-now strategies for schools

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This story appears in SmartBrief’s digital publication, SmartReport on ISTE 2015. To see more features, tips and our Tech Showcase, download it now.

In a recent lively chat about problems in education, a colleague suggested that teachers want quick fixes — the kind of solutions, she suggests, that do not exist. Upon careful consideration, I decided that my esteemed colleague couldn’t be more wrong.

In fact, I talk to teachers daily in the field and on social networks, and most of them say there are very few fixes at all, quick or otherwise. Almost every solution to any education problem is something that is sent to a committee, then to senior administrators, before being relegated to some five-year plan, etched in a 20-page mission statement that most will only skim.

The problem with five-year plans is that technology evolves at staggering speeds and our students change from week to week. Most five-year plans are obsolete long before the plan comes to fruition. We live in a time that calls for right-now strategies. Who even knows where we’ll be in five years?

It’s time for all education stakeholders to reframe their thinking and to change their attitudes. It’s time to solve problems today. Here are five solve-today-implement-tomorrow strategies that are sure to improve teaching and learning at your school.

  1. Engage learners on their playgrounds. Our students consume about seven hours of media daily. Most have mobile devices of some kind and are active on at least one social network. Still, many educators ask students to leave their most powerful learning tools in their lockers or at home. With mobile devices and social media come fear, which is understandable. The dangers of cyberbullying are real, and the possibility of disruption is palpable. However, there is no better way to engage all learners than by telling your students to bring their mobile devices to class, so they can text their peers or share their thoughts on Twitter or Instagram. Plus, activities like these present wonderful opportunities to teach appropriate use and online safety, lessons our students don’t get enough of outside school. All you need is Internet access and a few computers, tablets or mobile devices, and you can involve all your students in a remarkable conversation about any subject. Use Twitter (you can easily create a classroom account); Todaysmeet, which takes no registration and costs nothing; Celly, for texting; Facebook; or another platform. Help students access your back channel, and talk about learning. It’s fun and engaging, and you can start tomorrow.
  2. Ask students to reflect.On the surface, this might appear to be an obvious strategy. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most overlooked, yet best, practices any classroom teacher can use. Consider the elements of a typical lesson: Direct instruction, interaction, practice, observation/assessment, closure. While teachers have many variations on this format, what is typically left out (mainly due to lack of time) is reflection and self-evaluation. The best way to overcome the issue of time is to plan daily reflection into your lesson. How can this be done in a class period that might last 40 minutes? Give your students a space to write — a blog, a social network or even a spiral notebook, and plan as little as five minutes at the end of class for process writing. Build these journal entries around questions such as, What did I learn? Why is it important? What is unclear? How can I explain this in under a minute? Experts such as Thomas Guskey, Dylan William and Alfie Kohn have touted the effect of this kind of reflection and feedback for decades. When you consider that time involved — roughly five minutes — and the value of encouraging independent, self-evaluative learning, reflective writing must be a part of your daily routine.
  3. Find your tribe. This might sound a bit cliché, but every teacher needs at least one tribe — trustworthy professionals who will challenge your thinking every day. Creating and joining groups of like-minded educators on various social networks is more popular than ever. You can find teachers discussing all educationtopics on networks such as Facebook, WordPress, Twitter and LinkedIn. One teacher told me he had learned more in six months, participating in an ongoing Voxer chat with 30 other teachers, than he had in the prior 10 years of school-initiated professional development. In minutes, you can join a public group or page on Facebook, such as Talks with Teachers, or follow a Twitter feed, such as #edtech. These places are rife with progressive-minded educators who are friendly and eager to share hidden resources.
  4. Mess up your classroom.This is an easy right-now strategy, and it’s fun. How, though, does a mess improve teaching and learning? The broad-stroke answer is, it promotes student interaction and pumps energy into your room. When you take your chairs out of rows, or better yet have students do it, and put them in pods or circles, students engage with one another. Toss some beanbag chairs onto the floor, scatter some books, posters or dry erase boards on tables, and consider sitting on the floor (yes, even if it’s dusty). These simple gestures bring students and teachers closer together, and learning flourishes.
  5. You are responsible for the safety of dozens, or even hundreds, of children. You face pressure daily from administrators, colleagues and parents. There’s rarely enough time to complete all tasks, and you worry that you won’t be ready for tomorrow. Hold on a moment; slow down. For more than 15 years as a classroom teacher, I ran through 10-hour days as if a bonfire were chasing me down the hallway. I ate lunch at my desk and rarely socialized. One day, a sage colleague strolled into my room and ordered me to the faculty lounge. “You have to get away from the chaos, or it’s going to kill you,” he said. “You have to decompress.” This advice may have saved my life. Not long after that conversation, I began studying meditation and mindfulness. Not only did I start eating lunch with friends away from my classroom daily, I began practicing at least five minutes of relaxing meditation. When I learned to escape the rigors of daily teaching and to decompress, I felt better physically, mentally and emotionally. I stopped venting at students. I smiled more. Sometimes, I even laughed. So take five minutes (no social media or texting), and close your eyes. Inhale deeply; exhale slowly. Do this tomorrow, and teaching and learning will improve immediately, because you’ll be calmer, cooler, clear-minded and better.

Mark Barnes is the author of six education books, including the recently released Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School, part of the Hack Learning Series. Mark’s blog, Brilliant or Insane, has more than 200,000 monthly readers. Mark is also regarded as an international leader in the no-grades classroom movement. Follow him on Twitter @markbarnes19.


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