Classroom Atmosphere - “Mr. Stephans, You Don’t Actually Do Anything in Here.”

Earlier this year I made a vlog about my classroom when I completed its setup.  In the link you can see the video tour, but I realized that I hadn’t truly explained what my class is all about.  The title of this post says it all. It is a quote by one of my former students about what goes on in my classroom on a daily basis.  I am huge believer in making history cool again (I assume it was at one time) *crosses fingers hopefully*, but it has somehow been tossed aside by many as “that other subject” as we spend significant resources on Reading, Math, and STEM subjects.  To accomplish this goal, I believe we need to inject some energy and life back into our subject and to partner whenever possible with our cross-curricular teams to help our students see the value in learning about the past. I hope this post will give you some insight into how I try to accomplish this.

Let me first admit that I was once “that history teacher”.  I lectured all class period unless they were writing papers or taking a test.  I told the stories, but in the same way my teachers had taught me. I loved history because, as I have mentioned, I am a nerd, so taking notes and listening to a lecture never bothered me.  Sadly, most of our students aren’t like me. They need to be inspired and energized, so I set out to change my ways and over time I think I have found a style that suits me for teaching 19th Century American History.

First, I moved all my lectures to flipped videos and uploaded them to my YouTube channel.  I’ve been fortunate to be in 1:1 schools for several years, so that helped, though I would still have done the lectures (albeit much shorter) if I did not have access to the technology, but would have incorporated the students acting out roles of the historical figures.  These videos have allowed me to move off the “stage” and to allow students to work at their own pace to complete tasks and projects. This is what my student meant by “you don’t really do anything in here.” To which my response was, “That’s because I already passed the 8th grade.  Now it’s your turn to do the thinking and work, and I’m just here to help you when you stumble & celebrate your successes.”

Second, I embraced the power of Interactive Student Notebooks.  This was a dramatic shift I made mid year 4 years ago when I realized my students were struggling with analyzing documents because they lacked the background knowledge to understand the context.  Over the years I’ve tweaked them to focus more on critical-thinking skills and document analysis, and less on the foldables, & drawing aspects. This year, I haven’t used them as much because I’m needing to find a way to organize them to reflect my new theme around the National Parks & gamified class.

Speaking of gamification, this is a shift I made last year after reading Explore Like a Pirate by Michael Matera.  I’ve spoken a lot about this, so I won’t spend much time getting into it, but suffice to say, it changed the way I viewed my teaching and has helped me find ways to motivate & reward students for exceptional work, while still maintaining focus on the learning process and improving our skills throughout the year.  Everything in my class earns Experience Points (XP), and exceptional work earns items that unlock power-ups in class, and badges the provide additional XP and status throughout the game. Students have challenged themselves to move up the leaderboard, which we look at weekly & to show off their accomplishments.

Finally, this year I shifted to Standards-Based Grading after listening to Abigail Crane at Olathe West talk about the mindset shift, and watching the Hive Summit video this summer with Rick Wormeli.  This has been a massive game-changer. I get to see the same data, but now it means something, and I don’t spend hours grading simple assignments. My day is spent wandering around my room, observing students, having conversations, building relationships, and helping students reflect on their learning and offering guidance when they are stuck on a task.  Students get to revise with feedback, and late assignments are okay! We embrace the idea that learning is sometimes messy, and doesn’t happen on a linear path. We need to allow for those moments of academic discomfort and the opportunity to fail forward and become a better person and student through the process of learning.

So there it is.  As my student said, “Mr. Stephans, you don’t really do anything in here.”  And to the outside observer, it may appear that I am not truly “teaching”, but if you spend any time in my class, you discover students are engaged in learning throughout the class and I am always around taking in the learning process and being ready to assist when needed, though not always when students want me to, because they need to struggle through and persevere sometimes.  My students also apply for jobs and help run the class by answering the phone, taking attendance, and becoming leaders in here as well.

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out another educator/author & an amazing colleague: Paul Solarz & Ashley Nuñez. Paul is a 5th grade educator from Illinois whose book, Learn Like a Pirate, helped shift my class from teacher-centered to student-centered.  His advice & practical strategies on helping students achieve and develop the skills necessary for success in the real world are outstanding. His book on my list to review now that I’ve read and implemented some of his strategies, so be on the lookout for that blog post in the coming weeks.  You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulSolarz. Ashley is one of my cross-curricular teammates at Summit Trail and I have been fortunate to work with her both here at The Summit and at Turner Middle School. Ashley is an outstanding math teacher who also has implemented Interactive Student Notebooks with great success!  Her concern for our students is always uplifting and her strength as a leader among our team is always on display whether it is in the classroom, during meetings or supervising the hallways. She needs to get on Twitter so other math teachers can learn from her examples!