From Fear to Greatness

Being a coach 100% makes me a better educator.

I understand the worry that comes along with the responsibility of teaching and training kids.

The wonder about if you’re good enough to be leading them. The confusion when you can’t put well to words what you want from them. The sadness that comes when you see a child that looks as if she is going to burst into tears over a comment you made when all you were doing was trying to give constructive feedback. The actual tears you see sometimes…

Then there is the ever-present challenge of keeping up with new times, new drills, and new standards of excellence. That moment when you learn a level has completely changed their expectations for an event and you get vexed beyond belief because for the past few years you’ve been leading the kids entering this level down an entirely different path. Then you try to throw in some new drills into your class and you’re thinking it’ll be great – just like how you saw it at that conference you attended!- but it never is. Instead, the kids try out your new drill and it just looks all wrong, so you try to make corrects but can’t tell if it’s even worth continuing with this new drill. Did I explain it poorly? Am I not remembering the technique right? Was it too advanced for their skill level? Did I push them too far too fast? Or do they just need to get in more repetitions? Well now we’ve used up all of our time on this event today and I don’t even know if I just wasted the last 45 minutes or am making progress in a great new area that we’ve not trained as effectively before.

Honestly, time is the worst. Do you spend a little time on every event today, or do the kids really need to focus on just one event they’re weak at? Do I even have this option? Is today’s schedule set in stone because there are too many different groups moving around or do I have flexibility with my time? How do we balance learning new skills while also practising their routines necessary for the next competition? When is there next competition anyway; are they really ready for it? Am I wasting time explaining so many directions? Should I be doing our normal warm-up for consistency and time effectiveness or mixing it up so different skills are worked? Does it take more time to set up these stations then they’re worth doing? How much time is left before we have to rotate? What happens when they come to this event with a different leader next time and the kids get confused with new directions and expectations? Are the kids progressing at a reasonable pace? Is anyone falling behind? Is anyone being held back?

So ya, I can empathize with teachers. I know all of those worries and concerns and feel them while maybe not daily, at least bi-weekly, but I’m often thinking about this work much more often than just while I’m in the gym. Half of the time I ride Marta I’m listening to potential gymnastics music or choreographing new routines based on the skills I know kids have/expect them to have come performance time.

While I understand and constantly am faced with these concerns, I also can respect the bigger picture. USA Gymnastics completely changed lower level vaulting progressions this year. It’s a pain in the butt because now we’re having to teach all of these new vaults to children and we feel less confident in how these new changes play into our personal philosophies. But at the same time, the changes are mostly good for the greater whole of trying to improve American gymnastics.

And fears of if you’re good enough to be a leader, while perhaps valid, are also in a way trivial. Whether you feel good enough or not, you’re what these kids got. So either step up or step down, either way, get out of the way because these kids are coming and have expectations of you. So make it up, make mistakes, make saves. Try something new, and give it adequate time in the experimenting phase before judging it’s worth as a drill or skill. When you’re stuck or need a second to catch your breath or even just help with setting up, let the kids lead- they’ll surprise you. Learn from those around you and don’t be afraid of a “double spot” or an extra hand to help out; we tell kids it’s okay if you need a little extra help getting a new skill, so it should be okay for us too.

Fears, nerves, and concerns can drive us to great things if we can accept their validity and then move on to push past them; sometimes it just takes time, creativity, and a little extra help every now and then.

 

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Asynchronous Class

I had no classes today which was kind of great. Usually, I have one class, which is my English class, but today we had an “asynchronous class” instead. Basically, this is a fancy way of saying, instead of going to a specific room for an hour and ten minutes of “class” we just had an assignment posted (it wasn’t like a live video lecture or anything, just a normal homework assignment on the shorter side) that we need to have finished by midnight tomorrow.

I find the name “asynchronous class” a bit superfluous, but I very much appreciate the concept. Our professor when looking at her schedule for the semester knew that this was going to be a big week for us with three chapters of Shakespear reading, watching our next Disney movie, and finishing our first paper by Friday; therefore, she scheduled this asynchronous class as a way for us to be able to take ownership of managing our time. We could get our work done where ever and whenever we wanted to today. It was great!

Because of this schedule, it allowed me much more flexibility today and I didn’t have to waste time moving to and from a classroom, which was especially nice since I have a psych test I’ve also been studying for today. I’m glad that we have at least one other asynchronous class baked into the semester schedule because I’m sure it will also be at a much needed time. I applaud my professor for her forward thinking and teaching philosophy behind this.

I think more teachers should adopt the concept of an asynchronous class every now and then. It’s a good way to build student ownership into the class work when there is a busy week happening.

Forwarding the Movement as an Outsider

I was asked to write this article/blog post over the summer for a fellow learner-centered practitioner, though I’ll admit I’m not really sure what happened with it; however, I was thinking about it today and figured I could at least post it on my own blog!

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I graduated in 2017 from a recently turned learner-centered environment where I was fortunate to be highly involved in the process of transforming the school, but unfortunately higher ed is not so learner-centered. That was one of the biggest shell shock moments for me about entering college: going from a normal day involving working with clients from the CDC, City of Sandy Springs, and Chick-Fil-A to name a few, to a normal day now becoming sitting in long lectures and taking multiple-choice tests that make up 80% of your grade. As a learner now out of the k-12 system and in a non-learner-centered environment, I sometimes find myself feeling like an outsider in the Education Transformation Movement; however, as time passes I have come to realize that there are ample ways to forward the movement even as an “outsider.”

Despite moving into a less learner-centered environment, I always knew that I wanted to stay involved with this movement to transform education. I didn’t want to go into education as a major though because I believe part of the problem with our current education system is that we’re still teaching new teachers how to teach in a traditional way. Therefore, I’m studying Business Administration with a concentration in Leading and Managing Human Capital. I believe that if we think of schools as an innovative business it will help with the paradigm shift. I hope to learn more about change theory, risk management, social entrepreneurship, 21st-century leadership, and more to then apply that knowledge to help consult with schools trying to transform to a more learner-centered model.

Apart from my studies, I believe any educator wanting to transform the education system has a responsibility to stay connected with the larger national conversations happening on this topic – myself included. Being in college, it is harder to find opportunities to create change in my personal learning environment, but through social media, conferences, and writing articles I can still help effect change in other learning environments around the country.

I continue to stay involved with the national community primarily through Twitter and Slack conversations, attending conferences, blogging almost daily, and being Editor-in-Chief of Trailblazers, a student-driven magazine about the Education Transformation Movement. I believe as a young learner who graduated from a learner-centered environment, I, in particular, have a unique perspective that needs to be shared. A few years ago I stated in a blog post, “When teachers talk about learner-centered education people ask, ‘Where’s the evidence of this working?’ but when students talk about learner-centered education, we are the evidence. It is working.” – The Life of Pinya This quote has kind of served as my north star for the past few years. People want to know about the evidence, so I need to share my stories to prove just how much learner-centered education is bettering the lives of all kinds of students.

Since going to college, I have realized just how much more prepared I am for the world due to my k-12 experiences in a learner-centered environment. I have a deeper sense of self and can articulate my passions and goals in a comprehensive way. I have gotten feedback from professors about how impressed they were with my ability to send professional emails even as just a freshman. I have had the initiative to set up dozens of interviews with advisors to help me figure out my major. I sincerely believe I wouldn’t have had any of these important life skills if it wasn’t for my learner-centered high school; in my experience, traditional schools don’t spend a ton, if any, time on educating students about things like self-awareness, goal setting, professional communication, and taking initiative.

My life has been bettered immensely due to my participation in a learner-centered school and I hope one day that all students get the opportunity to learn under a more innovative model of education. I stay involved in the world of education for the future of those students – the ones who may not even know there are other options of schooling available. I’d love to see higher ed change their ways too, but for now I choose to focus my efforts on k-12 where I have the most background knowledge, even if I’m not in a k-12 environment. I hope other learners, of all ages, can come to realize that your environment doesn’t determine the level of participation you can have in the Education Transformation Movement. It’s always possible to effect change; start by sharing your story.

The Gift of Feedback

I truly value people who can give good feedback. It doesn’t necessarily have to be positive feedback, but just people who can balance between praise and critique and make suggestions without sounding like a know-it-all. People who know how to both point out specifics and provide examples of new directions to go in, but can also give general overall feedback on the piece as a whole.

I had a conversation with my bestie tonight about this and we both agreed that knowing how to give feedback well is one of the best skills you can find in a teammate. Yet at the same time, teaching “how” to give feedback never seems to me emphasized enough in school. There are some people that are just horrible at giving feedback. There are two spectrums of the people you don’t want to give you feedback: the know-it-alls who sound like snobs that can only give feedback “obviously you should’ve…” feedback, and then the people who don’t know how to critique at all so they just say everything is great even when you know it isn’t.

Personally, I wish there was more teaching on giving feedback. I learned through experience in the Innovation Diploma (ID) but sometimes it would be nice to get more feedback on how we’re giving feedback. It’s one of those things I really miss about high school/ID- more frequent practice of giving and receiving feedback.

Also, especially in college but I suppose for some high schools too, I wish more teachers facilitated first drafts and peer review. Sometimes you need that nudge to meet new people in your classes and some people need more guidance on how to give feedback if they never had that learning opportunity when they were younger.

I happened to be partnered with someone today in my English class who I found to be a particularly helpful feedback giver. There was great balance in the type and style in which he gave feedback which I truly appreciated. It will now make my second draft much easier to write.

Decreasing Choking Under Pressure

I love when homework is actually really interesting!

We didn’t have psych class today because our teacher was out to due to religious reasons, so instead she had us watch two videos on our own and write an essay about what we found interesting and do some critical thinking about the two. I found one of the videos pretty annoying, and honestly still a bit annoyed that all of this work took almost three times as much time as the class normally would’ve; however, the second video I actually really enjoyed.

It was called “Power of the Human Brain” and some of the video I had already learned about before, like the concept of using a “memory palace” to better remember long random lists which is a technique mental athletes use. But I also learned some new stuff that really closely ties in with learning and memory and education practices in general which I found particularly interesting.

For example, there was a study done to see if we can train our brain to be less likely to “choke” under pressure. Turns out, the emotional part of our brain is right next to the working memory part. So when we get overly anxious or stressed, the emotional part of our brain can literally cloud up the working memory by overwhelming it with too many signals that take up brain power. Therefore, the study had half of a class take 10 minutes to reflect before taking a test about how they were feeling and get all there worries out, and the other half of the class just sat there. The half of the class who did the pre-writing ended up on average outperforming the control group by half a letter grade. The theory is that the kids who did the writing essentially “out loaded” their worries onto the paper and therefore, lessened the space they were taking up in the brain which allowed for the working memory to work more optimally.

Now I didn’t spend the time to look any deeper into this study or others about this topic after watching the video, but I still think the findings are pretty awesome- especially as a kid who is not the best test taker compared to what I feel my understanding of information is. I’m definitely going to try this pre-writing technique out and believe teachers should really try implementing this practice in classrooms as well. Getting learners to practice reflecting, creating a less stressed out environment, and having better performance result; sounds like a lot of wins for so little work.

Even if it’s a Game…

There’s a recentish trend in education around trying to “gamify” certain lessons to make them more engaging to students.

Personally, I’m a fan of this concept, I even use the tool myself when teaching gymnastics sometimes by making conditioning into competitions or basics on beam into a repeat after me game as I did today. I think it can definitely be a useful tool for any teacher’s toolbag.

However, I also learned today that doing a poor job at gamify-ing actually makes things worse from a user end.

As part of my psych class requirements, I participated today in a research study. If it wasn’t giving me class credit I would say that it was the biggest waste of an hour and a half I’ve ever had; it still quite possibly could be. Some part of me hopes that the researchers can benefit from my involvement in the study, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be an outlier in their study.

The study description was:

The purpose of this study is to assess how information is valued when it comes at a cost and how time pressure influences information foraging. In this experiment, you will play a medical diagnosis game where you will select information to aid in your diagnostic decision-making. 

So I come in, sign my release form, and then I was put at a desk with a computer in a small room that had a divider between me and the other participant. When I read that this study was being conducted in the form of a game I got excited thinking it was going to be a fun mental challenge with interesting rewards system; you know- game like.

Turns out this was not a fun game. The game worked by a patient “coming in” and telling you their symptoms. Then you could see the results of different tests like an MRI or Cat scan, etc. There were four symptoms, four tests each with three possible outcomes, and four potential diagnoses. Upon correctly diagnosing a patient you’d get $1000/points. Then there were different rounds that added different factors like time and hidden information which were meant to help get at what the study was trying to test.

In theory, you would have to guess at the beginning of the game and then would slowly recognize patterns to help you make informed decisions on how to diagnose each patient. The problem for me was that I never learned anything. To be honest, I got really annoyed with myself because I could not figure out the correct connections. It didn’t help that half of the test results looked the same and I didn’t realize during the instructions would be the only time they tell you the difference between the “positive, neutral, and negative” test results looked like.

What I do know though is that my feeling of “failure” to learn what I was supposed to be learning lead to exactly what you’d expect: I stopped caring to try. I just continued to guess and honestly, it made things faster and I was still having decent success in my opinion, though I have nothing to compare my game score against. At that point, I really just wanted to get out of there but knew I had to finish the study for my credit (and for feeling like a decent person purposes and helping with their study despite being bored out of my mind).

I couldn’t even tell you how many times I almost fell asleep out of boredom. This “game” turned into my clicking a mouse twice in two spots then clicking the space bar. Repeat. Over and over again. I then got to that point where I felt jumpy from sitting in one place for so long and trying not to think about going to the bathroom because I was just wondering how long I would have to keep playing the stupid game.

I’m pretty confident that there are a lot of other students out there like me in this story and even more that may have not even tried as long as I did to figure out the learning lesson. Students where if they were in the situation of feeling like they were never going to learn something, they stop trying to learn it if no one gives them a new way to approach the topic. I think people intrinsically know when a certain style of teaching is not going to work for them, so why keep trying to put the square into the circular hole when you know it will never fit?

And this goes even for exercises that seem “fun” and “game like”; they still may not work for everyone, no matter how excited you are about a new activity for teaching a topic. There always needs to be options and adjustments if we want everyone to succeed; we talk about that all the time in gymnastics. When we teach a new drill, we say it, show it, have the kids try it, and still sometimes need to give a few kids a spot through it for a little; it doesn’t matter how they get the information, but they need to be able to all safely try on their own.

It was honestly a big MoVe moment (moment of visible empathy) for me walking out of that room realizing how some students may feel fairly often at school when they just aren’t getting it and don’t know what to do about it.

The Editor

I’ve recently been giving a lot of feedback on senior’s college application essays. It’s been an interesting process helping with the editing of all of these essays.

First, I’ve realized just how lucky I was to have gone to a school with such an amazing college counseling program. So many of the kids I’ve talked with barely know their college counselor and don’t really get much time for feedback from them.

Second, I’ve realized that I’ve gotten so much better at giving feedback and mostly because of the amount I’ve learned to ask for feedback. It’s a pretty straightforward concept really: the more you get feedback, the better you become at giving feedback to others. I just had never thought about it before, but while talking with these seniors I even find myself quoting feedback that I’ve been given by other friends and mentors of mine.

Then again, I know some of my feedback is still probably much too wordy, though none-the-less I think the content of my feedback has been on point. I didn’t realize how much my skills as an editor have grown between giving feedback to people on their essays as well as my role in Trailblazers with helping with the editing of those stories.

In school we spend a lot of time trying to become good writers, but there’s a lot to be said of having a good editor. I cherish the people I ask to help edit my writing. They know me, my style, and help with the grammar skills I lack and organization skills I’m still developing.

Plus I think the more you practice editing someone else’s work, the better your writing can become. For example, I’ve gotten much better at noticing when people aren’t really answering the prompt directly in their work which has made me more cognitive of trying to stay focused during my own writing.

Yet I’ve realized, being a good editor is not a natural skill. It’s hard to figure out how to word feedback in ways that will inspire new ideas from a writer; giving constructive criticism while also proposing potential new approaches/suggestions for the work. Part of my role in Trailblazers has been helping with not only the editing process, but also giving feedback to the high schoolers about how to be an effective editor. These conversations involve discussing how to help with prompt creation, key things to look for in an article, and how to keep a writer motivated long enough to get a good end product. It hadn’t occurred to me before the past year that people don’t naturally have a sense about how to give feedback in this way; I only knew the role of an editor because I had worked with one a few times when I myself wrote for an e-magazine.

I wish in school we spent more time focusing on how to be a good editor not just a good writer, I think it could benefit everyone.

The Outline of the Future

I hate being assigned to write an outline. Most of the time they are graded which I find ridiculous since it’s basically grading a brainstorm… Plus every teacher always wants a different level of thoroughness in the outline, so you never know how much or how little to write. For some teachers, an outline is literally just a bullet-pointed list of a few words, but for others, it seems like we write enough to where we basically have the entire essay minus a few words.

What I especially dislike most of all about assigned outlines is that it always feels like we are formatting it for the teacher and not for ourselves even though the entire point of doing an outline is to better organize YOUR thoughts. You should be able to organize your thoughts any way you choose that works best for you.

For example, I am much more of a visual/kinesthetic learner, and therefore, I gravitate towards making storyboards/story-archs as my prefered method of essay brainstorming. I take a bunch of different colored sticky notes and jot down ideas that I continue to move around and maybe add side notes to until I feel like I have a solid story that I can then just type out. Since I’ve started this method I have found the pre-writing process so much more successful: I’m faster at generating good ideas and faster at organizing them.

Wouldn’t it be cool if when assigned to turn in an outline we could just turn in a picture or physical copy of a story board? I can’t wait for the day that simple ideas like outlines have more options for different kinds of learners.

My Opinion on Online Classes

Online classes aren’t really a new thing, yet they seem to still get perceived as new which is odd to me. I officially got registered for the online version of a required CS class today and as I was walking with an upperclassman she asked me, “As a student with a passion for learner-centered education, I’m curious about your opinion on online classes.”

I guess this title is a bit of a misnomer because in actuality I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other about online courses.

I use to very strongly be against them, but seeing as today I signed up for my 3rd ever online class, I realized that opinion clearly changed and now is more neutral.

I was against online classes because the depth of learning isn’t as powerful in an online class. I mean if you ask most students they’ll flat out say online courses are easier- that was at least a factor to my reasoning to register. Online classes may be interactive some, but the material is set and rigid and pretty surface level since there are no conversations where deeper questions can be posed and explored. The material is all given to you up front and you can finish as quickly as you would like/are able to; there is no “well the class seemed really interested on this topic so we pivoted the schedule to do a whole project unit where we came up with plans and prototypes and pitched to board members…”

You don’t sign up for an online course because of the content. I signed up for CS online course because the in-person course happened at a time I didn’t particularly like with the rest of my schedule. It meant I would have to rush from CS class across campus to Marta twice a week all semester and then uber to the gym to still be a bit late to coaching the practices I help with.

That’s really the big plus I see about online courses: time and location flexibility. That’s the reason I’ve now signed up for three different online classes since high school. It was always an issue of scheduling where I needed to take a class but didn’t have room in my busy schedule and the online option ended up being the perfect compromise.

So from the perspective of a student trying to get a credit out of the way and get a decent grade while doing other things, online classes are great. However, when I think about the quality of learning happening in most online classes, I find it to be sub-par.

It’s pretty easy to cut corners in online classes, and when you’re already not interested in the topic and just taking the course for credit sake, there’s little motivation to not want to just “get through it” as fast as possible.

Furthermore, I believe that a huge part of learning revolves around the social interactions and relationships built during the learning process. It’s really hard to successfully achieve those relationships in an online environment. Again, partially because there’s no real incentive to strive for that deeper level of learning. I consider myself to be an intrinsically motivated learner and a pretty good student, (yes, I believe those are different thing, but that is a different conversation), and even I don’t find myself caring to make the extra effort in an online course to really make it a remarkable learning experience; I just want the credit on my own time.

Obviously, this is all my own personal opinion, and some kids may, in fact, make that extra effort, though in my experience few do.

As I told the friend who asked me about my opinion, thus inspiring this post tonight, I believe that online courses are still a work in progress. I don’t have a strong opinion yet because I see the potential in them to be a great learning tool, though at this point I think they are just a great tool for the traditional system where learning has a more cut and dry vibe. The flexible time and space component to online courses is learner-centered in nature, though the context, course material, and assessment structure is still very much not.