Monday, August 30, 2021

Mind Your Ps and Qs, a Norm Setting Protocol

The beginning of a school year is an exciting time for educators and learners. For many of us, it's an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again with new groups of students and perhaps new colleagues. And if you taught remotely for all or part of the last school year, you may still be getting acquainted with some of your colleagues - or perhaps all of them if you are new to the school.

Today I'd like to share a PLC protocol that I have found to be helpful in developing team norms. While I've used it with teacher teams, I think it can work really well in setting up class norms in a student-centered environment. It's actually an adaptation of "Irks and Quirks" published in the book Facilitating Teacher Teams and Authentic PLCs: The Human Side of Learning People, Protocols, and Practices by Daniel R. Venables. I call it "Mind Your Ps and Qs" and it gets participants reflecting on their own pet peeves and quirks as they develop team norms. Ideally, you want to create the norms immediately after completing this activity, but if the group is too large you may need to tweak it so it doesn't take up the entire designated time period.

Here's how it goes.

Time: 15-20 minutes depending on the size of the group. And I suggest stating this at the start so it doesn't take any longer.

  1. Give each participant an index card. 
    • On one side, they write one pet peeve regarding PLCs or meetings. Some common examples include, one person monopolizing the conversation or not starting meetings on time.
    • On the other side, they write one quirk that colleagues (or classmates) should know in order to make their work most productive. Some examples include sharing preferences or learning styles.
  2. Participants share both sides of the cards with no comment or discussion from colleagues. 
    • Ideally sharing is voluntary, but I found most people are open to sharing.
    • This should take 5-7 minutes.
  3. Debrief for about 3-5 minutes before moving on to setting team norms.
If you have a PLC protocol that has worked well for you and helped you build relationships, I'd love to hear about it. Please share it in the comment below, drop me an email or reach out to me on Twitter (@amgonza).

I wish everyone a happy and healthy school year. And remember it's the tidbits that make it all grand. Take care!

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Help With Getting Our Students' Names Right

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Do you struggle remembering names? I certainly do. While I'm pretty shameless about admitting it and asking over and over again, it's pretty embarrassing and I don't like it. Through the years I've gotten better by coming up with strategies to memorize names or to get folks to tell me their name again without having to ask, but I'm still working on it.

It's back-to-school season and one of the challenges educators face every year is learning students' names and especially the correct pronunciation. There's nothing more welcoming to a student than to be called by their properly pronounced name starting on the first day of school. I recently came across a cool website that will help teachers be able to do just that. has recordings of proper pronunciations for more than 100,000 names. So if there are names on your rosters that you're not familiar with, you can learn to pronounce them before you meet the students. And if a name isn't included, or if a student pronounces his/her name differently than on the site, you can add it to the database. This can also be helpful in learning to pronounce parents' names properly before you meet or call them.
Proper name pronunciation speaks volumes to an individual. It demonstrates to them that we value and respect them as an individual. Most teachers will tell students to correct them as they call the roll on the first day of class, but many kids don't speak up so it's up to us to take the lead on this. I also encourage you to read (or listen to) Cult of Pedagogy's post, "How We Pronounce Student Names and Why It Matters."

I've also found it helpful to have students submit a video introduction via a learning management system (like Canvas or Google Classroom) at the beginning of the year - ideally before the first day. That way you can learn their name and pronunciation while connecting a face to the name. This was super helpful to one of my teachers who came to our school mid-year. The week before he joined us, students introduced themselves and welcomed him using Flipgrid, and it helped him build relationships with his learners from day one. For more tips to help with remembering student names, check out Edutopia's list on "How to Remember Names.

If you have a tip or strategy that has helped you learn names quickly, please comment below, email me, or reach out to me on Twitter.

Have a great year! And remember, it's the tidbits that make it all grand. Take care!

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Parent's Perspective on Learning During Covid

Everyone seems to have an opinion about learning during Covid - most especially parents, many of whom had to take on a teaching role in the spring of 2020. While we weigh heavily on the opinions of educational experts, I think it's important for parents' voices to be heard and to partner with families, especially with so many of our students still learning all or part of the time at home.

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In episode 10 of the Teaching Tidbits Podcast, I interviewed the mother of two school-aged boys about her sons' learning experiences during Covid. She is a non-educator who has always been supportive of teachers, but the current pandemic has taken her support and appreciation to a whole new level. If you are the parent of a school-aged child, you may relate to much of what is shared. But learning during Covid has not been the same for everyone. Stories are as individual as the families we serve. I invite you to listen and as you do, compare and contrast her experience to yours and/or your learners.

Covid has affected all of us differently, but no one has been spared. I hope this episode will help start constructive conversations with parents and colleagues. Despite our efforts to remain safe and socially distant, it's important that we remain connected and keep communication lines open so get through this together. And if you have developed creative ways to stay in touch with families during these challenging times, I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or reach out on Twitter (@amgonza). Either way, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time, take care and stay well. And remember it's the tidbits that make it all grand.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Power of Good Calls Home

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November is Family Engagement Month! In many states, including North Carolina, governors have signed a proclamation to recognize the importance of the family and school partnerships. Now more than ever, parents play a significant role in a child's education and this month is a great time to reach out and generate parental support and involvement - especially to families who for any number of reasons have not been involved in their child's education.

In episode 9 of the Teaching Tidbits Podcast, I was joined by Rik Rowe, a high school math educator from Massachusetts who coined the hashtag #GoodCallsHome on Twitter after making positive calls a part of his weekly routine. He shares what prompted him to start making the calls and the impact it has made on his students, their families and on him. I invite you to listen to this very inspiring conversation. Warning: this episode may be life changing.

There are many ways to generate parental engagement, but for parents who are generally disconnected, good calls home is a perfect start, and it can potentially transform relationships, classroom culture and academic trajectories. Good Calls Home is a little thing - a tidbit - that makes a huge difference. And if you have non-English speaking families, please check out "Communication Is Possible Despite Language Barriers" for tips and tools to help you connect even if you don't share a common language.

If you make positive calls regularly and have an inspiring story to tell or any tips to share, I'd love to hear from you. You may comment below or connect with me on Twitter (@amgonza).

Until next time, keep up the great work and remember, it's the tidbits that make it all grand.  Take care!

Monday, October 26, 2020

Can We Be Too Positive?

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We are all trying to do our best to stay positive as we ride the Covid-19 storm. And while cultivating a positive mindset is a powerful coping mechanism, if we are not careful positivity can do more harm than good. After reading numerous tweets about "toxic positivity" I became intrigued and decided to read up on the topic. In doing so, I realized that in my efforts to alleviate struggles, I may have been offending or even hurting family, friends, and colleagues. First, I apologize to those I did, it most certainly was not intentional. But I also want to ensure that my attempts to encourage and support will help others (and myself too) move forward and grow during these difficult times.

So, what's the solution? How can we get rid of toxic positivity but still remain positive and hopeful?

In Episode 7 of the Teaching Tidbits Podcast, I was excited to be joined by my friend and fellow educator, Terry Pimienta, as we discussed ways to tackle our challenges with Nontoxic Positivity. She shares examples of how she's supporting her colleagues and instills a nontoxic positive mindset. I invite you to take a listen. I hope Terry will inspire you as much as she inspired me.

In our conversation, we referred to the infographic below featured in Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes, which is available for a free download. 

Source: The Psychology Group

We have lots to complain about and we do need to vent from time to time, but I hope you are able to keep from drowning in negativity. From the classroom to a PLC meeting to the teacher's lounge, let's make every effort to encourage and support one another, not by putting on a facade as if everything is peachy, but instead by validating the struggle and working together to find solutions one tidbit at a time, so we can come out ahead in the long run. 

Until next time, please remember it's the tidbits that make it all grand. Take care!

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Unpacking Student Feedback

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Do you solicit student feedback?

I usually did as a classroom teacher and found student surveys to a valuable measure of teaching and learning in my classes as well as a significant contribution to my professional growth. However, I quickly learned that I couldn't take responses at face value. I feel that students often told me what they thought I wanted to hear. They tended to be positive, perhaps for fear of repercussions, or offered unrealistic suggestions. At first glance, their responses didn't have a lot of meat in them, but if I dug, I usually found it. Unpacking responses and reading between the lines helped me reflect on my practice and hone my instructional skills. While students may not be our official evaluators, they are the reason schools exist. 

Image Source: Quote Fancy

During Episode 5 of the Teaching Tidbits Podcast,  I had the pleasure of interviewing two high schoolers about their remote learning experience. I encouraged them to speak openly and honestly and to share constructive feedback that would help us navigate these difficult and uncertain times. 

Just as I did when I sifted through survey responses, I listened intently and repeatedly to the podcast episode to unpack their feedback. Here were my greatest takeaways.

  • Let's not pretend that remote instruction can replicate face-to-face instruction.  While it works better for some courses than others, it's way different and it's not easy for any of us. We want to hold students accountable, but we also need to acknowledge that it's challenging for all involved. High expectations are not negotiable, but we need flexibility and grace. Furthermore, some courses don't lend themselves well to remote instruction and lessons may need to be reinvented to make them work or it may all fall apart. 
  • Easier work and a lighter workload can actually be harder on students. This is especially true for special populations and those with attention issues. Structures and challenges are healthy. While we do want to be flexible, we don't want learning to fold. We may slow down during this pandemic, but we can't quit. 
  • Technical difficulties are not just an inconvenience they are interference. Videoconferencing tools and internet connections are not flawless and we must keep in mind that these imperfections impact and interfere with learning, engagement, and motivation. They're not merely an inconvenience. 
  • Meaning and purpose matter.  Students may not be masters at pedagogy, but they know full well what a well-planned lesson looks like. Young people want to learn, not just earn grades.
  • Maximize the learning management system. Students understand that there's a learning curve for some teachers, but our digital natives expect teachers to effectively utilize educational technologies, especially an LMS. It's about productivity, not the wow-factor. 
  • Organization and predictability are crucial. Just as it is in the traditional setting, students need to know what the objective is and how they are going to meet it. And laying out a plan - weekly or longer - helps students have a clear vision of timeline and expectations. It's also helpful to be clear and realistic about pace and deadlines. 
  • Relationships are possible even from afar and they matter. We don't need to be in the same space or see them every day to develop relationships. Students can tell even remotely when teachers are genuinely interested in the whole student.
  • It's best for cameras to be on. We learn better, we teach better, we connect better. While we don't necessarily need to penalize students for turning off their cameras, it's important for them to see our faces and for them to see ours, even if for just for part of the class period.
  • Students want a voice.  They want to be heard, but they want to be anonymous so they feel free to express themselves openly and honestly without fear of repercussions or stigma.
  • Cleanliness matters. Covid-19 has elevated the importance of sanitation and wellness and they are buying into it. Students are willing to do their part to stay safe and healthy, but they also want the cleaning protocols to stay in place well after the pandemic passes. 

I'm certain these young men had lots more to say, but either it didn't come to mind during the interview or they didn't feel completely comfortable expressing it to an unknown audience (perhaps both). We also didn't talk about solutions, because (just like us) they probably don't have a clue. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by their positive mindset and their willingness to work with what they can control and accept what they can't. 

If you haven't listened to the broadcast, I encourage you to listen, reflect, and then start a conversation with your students and/or your own kids. And if you have any comments or opinions about the episode, or about conversations you are having with learners, I'd love to hear from you. 

Until next time, keep up the great work! We'll get through this one day at a time, one student at a time, one tidbit at a time.  Take care!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Communication Is Possible Despite Language Barriers

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Developing relationships with students in a remote or socially distant environment is awkward, but it's especially difficult connecting with English learners with whom we don't share a common language. This year, I've been asked to make phone or video calls to newcomer ELs whose teachers aren't able to communicate with. And I'm happy to take on this extra work. While I get pulled primarily for translation, I take the opportunity to develop relationships and help ease the anxiety of having to learn remotely, in a new country, and in a new tongue. 

During the five years, I got to serve as a Secondary ESL teacher, overcoming language barriers became part of my job description. Although I am fortunate to be fluent and literate in Spanish, many of my students were not Spanish speaking and I found myself in the same predicament as many of my colleagues. But I will say that as challenging and daunting as it may seem, linguistic barriers are not impossible to overcome. 

While it's wonderful to have a human translator, they aren't always available. However, there are several tech tools at our fingertips that work fairly well. And even when the translation isn't perfect, they get the message across. One thing they do translate is your willingness to make an effort to connect and communicate. And that, in it of itself, speaks volumes. 

Image by Sayyid 96 from Pixabay

The following tech tools are free and easy to use. If you are not familiar with them, I encourage you to check them out.

  • Google Translate. This familiar tool to many of us can actually be a teacher's best friend. It works on any type of device. Messages can be keyed or spoken and likewise, translations can be read or listened to. If you use the app on your mobile device, it will also let you scan text, instantly producing a translation. Google Translate is my go-to tool when in a pinch and no human translator is available. If you are meeting with a student over Zoom, you can copy the translation from Google Translate and past it in the chatbox. 
  • Talking Points. A text messaging tool that allows educators to connect and communicate with students and their families. It's free for teachers, though there are premium features that schools can pay for.  Although I've never used the tool myself, it's a staple for many ESL teachers, and everyone I know who uses it gives it rave reviews.
  • Remind. Many educators use this app for communicating with students and families, but don't often use (or may even be aware of) its powerful translation feature. With a simple tap, messages can be translated into any of 70 different languages. 
  • Microsoft Translator for Education. A site that provides free resources and tools for captioning and translation in the classroom, but what I love the most is its conversation feature that provides real-time translation. There are many ways this tool can facilitate conversation when there is no common language. I recently sat in a demonstration during a PD session and was very impressed.
There are some meetings that necessitate a professional translator, but for most of the daily interactions that help us build relationships with students, technology tools like these are more than adequate. While they may not be perfect at times, more often than not they translate accurately and are tremendously helpful in bridging communication gaps. 

Image Credit: wilgengebroed

Bottom line, kindness and compassion are understood by all. A warm smile and friendly demeanor can express more than words can say, despite a language barrier.  There are many teaching strategies that can help with making content comprehensible, but as Dr. Comer alluded, relationships are essential to learning. And it's difficult to develop a relationship, much less a significant one, if there's no communication. Technologies like the ones I listed not only translate, they also let the student know that you are their ally, not just their teacher, giving them a sense of safety and belonging, which will likely help them work to potential. 

If you aren't already, I challenge you to take small steps to directly connect with students with whom you don't share a common language. You'd be surprised how far even just a greeting will take you. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Until next time, remember it's the tidbits that make it all grand. Take care.