Tell Me About … / How You Help Students Gain Life Skills

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Know What You Don’t Know

Admitting to ourselves and others that we don’t have all the answers is an important skill, but it can be difficult for high-achieving and struggling students alike.

One way I successfully fostered this ability in my students was by requiring them to write questions they had about classroom texts. Initially, many students claimed not to have any questions. Providing model questions wasn’t enough to encourage students to create questions they truly couldn’t answer.

So I asked students to form questions younger students might have if they read the same text. Almost immediately, my students felt freed up to explore curiosities and confusions. After a short while, my students no longer needed the younger-student scenario and felt comfortable proclaiming, “I don’t know.” Establishing this confession as a cultural norm helped students approach learning from an inquiry stance.

Julie Webb, consultant, J. Webb Consulting, Woodland, California

Be Your Own Advocate

Even the most gifted students struggle with self-advocacy. To foster this habit in my students, I create a classroom environment that minimizes risk—one in which providing an incorrect answer is not viewed as shameful, but rather an opportunity for growth and reflection. We devote as much time in class discussions to wrong answers and why students make them as we do to right answers.

You’ll hear me say, “It’s my job to help you understand, but it’s your job to tell me if you don’t understand. If you don’t understand, it means I’m not doing my job. I need you to hold me accountable.” When we reduce risk and give context to asking questions, students are more likely to share areas of misunderstanding or ask for clarification. Self-advocacy is a skill that permeates all aspects of life. The more we encourage it, the greater success our students will achieve.

Jennifer Rosser, 5th grade teacher, Pine Valley Elementary School, Wilmington, North Carolina

The Art of Listening

In preparing students for the 21st century, we often overlook the importance of listening. Sometimes students are unaware that they don’t listen. Other times teachers fail to recognize that sitting quietly does not always equal listening.

Good listening is a key part of collaboration and can be modeled with direct instruction and support. I teach English language development and have used a daily listening rubric with my English language learners. They learn the difference between sitting quietly and actively listening to other students’ contributions. Their newfound abilities to paraphrase and repeat one another’s ideas have also fostered language growth. This framework values the art of thinking and teaches children to refrain from interrupting.

Collee LeCompte, English language development teacher, Douglas County School District, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Dream Big

I have helped students at my school find their voice through “dreamstorm” sessions in which students dream up ideas for what they want to learn. Drawing on the students’ list, staff members develop extension seminars. Students receive personal invitations to join the seminars, many of which are interdisciplinary and taught collaboratively. In the next phase of our work, students will lead the dreamstorm sessions and propose ideas for student-led seminars co-taught with our teachers.

Melissa Anders, associate principal, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

Hosting Conversations

No matter the path they take after high school, students will benefit from being able to host meaningful, enduring conversations. The activity I call “chat rooms” incorporates and measures students’ ability to closely read an extended nonfiction text, conduct and simplify research, contribute to a topic-centered conference, and synthesize findings in a summarizing paragraph. The central focus of this activity is speaking and listening, but participants also have an opportunity to clarify their understanding of the text and research. On the chosen day, students “host” a meeting about their topic with three peers. They discuss evidence and weave the article into the discussion. Suddenly the host is conducting a mature conversation among equal participants. Rotate roles and repeat!

John Hayward, English teacher, Naperville Central High School, Naperville, Illinois

Difficult Questions

With my senior English students about to enter life beyond high school, I wanted them to know how to find answers to complex questions. I invited students to explore a question they had always wanted to study. The questions they sought to answer included, Is dyslexia a disability or a gift? Why are the churches in Europe empty? How is brotherhood achieved? What causes people to take extreme measures to survive? Students found and read three books that helped them get closer to an answer. During the last week of school, the seniors showcased their findings in projects ranging from original paintings and songs to timelines and survival demonstrations. The result: Students proved to themselves that they could explore difficult questions, find satisfying answers, and contribute to other people’s understanding.

Christi Krehbiel, instructor/instructional coach, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Better Behavior

Many of the students who are referred to me need to improve their classroom behavior skills. I like to meet with these students in small groups and focus on two things: taking responsibility for our actions and being honest with ourselves.

When students get in trouble in class, they tend to have a skewed perception of what is causing their troubles. I hear statements like, “My teacher is always telling me I’m doing something wrong” and “My teacher made me miss recess.”

In our group, we dive into these issues and take a close look at cause and effect. We sort through the students’ statements and decide whether they reflect “good thinking” or “stinkin’ thinkin’.” For instance, if a student has been warned about talking in class, “I need to stop talking to my friends” is good thinking. However, “My teacher just doesn’t like me,” is stinkin’ thinkin’. When we examine good thinking alternatives, it becomes much easier for students to understand their own struggles.

Karen Kinsey, home/school advisor, Portage Township Schools, Portage, Indiana

Grit and Growth

At my elementary school, we intentionally teach grit and a growth mindset. We have goal-setting conferences and address what to do when results are not what you want them to be. Our teachers have individual conferences that sound like this: “Awesome results. Now what are you going to do to improve upon this and keep growing?” It has strengthened student relationships, and students are consistently improving. It takes time, but it’s been a worthwhile investment.

Vanessa Stuart, principal, Degan Elementary, Lewisville ISD, Lewisville, Texas

Social Practices

Students do not inherently know how to work together in groups. Like any skill, positive social interaction needs to be taught and practiced. From a very young age, students can be taught how to be a valuable member of a group—for instance, by moving around the classroom without making noise. As students become more advanced, they can learn complex skills like how to disagree with ideas and not people or how to probe for more information by asking questions.

Cooperative learning requires the explicit teaching of social skills. I teach a social skill target just like any other academic learning target. Students are assessed (by themselves, group members, or the teacher) just as they would be for an academic skill. I want my students to have all the skills necessary to survive in the 21st century!

Adam Roubitchek, instructional coach, Maine West High School, Des Plaines, Illinois

Cultural Code Switching

As a black child from the projects being raised by a single mom, I experienced home norms that clashed with school norms. I needed school to help me understand my home code and to assist me in bridging to the school code.

Current scholars of culturally responsive pedagogy say that code switching, or cultural synchronization, is an essential academic and behavioral skill for deep learning. As a teacher and administrator, I was able to incorporate cultural nuances into my teaching to validate, affirm, and bridge the academic and behavioral norms of school. This gave my students cultural capital and a greater willingness to accept the norms of school. Overtly teaching code switching is not just a schoolwide strategy; it is a means for some students to gain access to the world of work and college readiness.

Edwin Javius, CEO/president, EDEquity Inc., San Jose, California

Becoming Critical Thinkers

One life skill my students need is the ability to think critically and respond intelligibly to higher-order questions. I help my students achieve this goal by teaching them to formulate critical-thinking questions about their daily reading. These questions require analysis, evaluation, or synthesis.

After they have formulated these questions, students orally respond to one another’s questions using examples, observations, or text-based evidence. After building confidence through discussion, students select one of the questions they feel most passionate about and write a written response. This exercise allows students to make the connection between speaking and writing.

Students love it when they own the discussion and the writing process. I serve as a facilitator and gate keeper as I watch students mature into critical thinkers.

Martha Joseph Watts, teacher, Brevard County School District, Viera, Florida

Gritty Kids

In the famous children’s story “The Little Engine That Could,” the engine made it to the top by saying, “I think I can.” More important, what did the engine say on the other side of the mountain? “I thought I could.” All because of that quality called grit.

Our kids are growing grit because we give them challenges, promote perseverance, and share our own struggles. When we demonstrate grit, kids notice. And they do more than notice; they develop an appetite for grit themselves.

Gritty kids stop at nothing to accomplish what they set out to do. They view obstacles as opportunities. They are not ones to “kind of” want to do something. They “absolutely” want to do something. They learn that grit grows with every successful trip to the “other side” of the mountain. May we teach them to believe, “I think I can,” as they take on the mountains of life and celebrate with them on the other side as we hear them proudly say, “I thought I could.”

Jeff King, principal, George L. Myers Elementary, Portage Township Schools, Portage, Indiana

Learning 101

Learning how to learn is a useful skill throughout life’s journey. Knowing its value, I provide students with opportunities to use two strategies: questioning and problem solving.

Questioning promotes understanding or helps to carry out an action. It also involves thinking critically by asking questions about motives, rationales, and contexts. I encourage students to try to solve problems by conducting research or using tutorials and simulations before asking someone else for assistance. This helps to cement the habit of learning how to learn.

These two strategies overlap and reinforce continual learning. Questioning leads to problems being solved, and problem solving leads to more questions being raised.

Mamzelle Adolphine, adjunct professor, American College of Education, Indianapolis, Indiana

Powerful Words: “I’m Sorry”

Over the years, I have found that my high school students do not know how to apologize. When they make a mistake, whether it is in the classroom or with friends and family, they become overwhelmed and cannot resolve the situation. Whenever I hear students upset about someone being angry with them, I talk them through three steps. First, say that you are sorry and what you are sorry for. Second, explain what you will do to make the current situation better. Third, tell the person that you will do your best not to make the same mistake again. We sometimes practice together, and this gives students confidence to face the problem.

Lauren Katzman, English department chair, Lake Zurich High School, Lake Zurich, Illinois

Growing Through Feedback

I hope to help my students gain both a better understanding of growth mindset and an appreciation for multiple perspectives. One way I recently did this was through my students’ ancient Egypt personal learning iPad projects. Students presented their research using a variety of apps. Friends, colleagues, and Twitter users from around the globe viewed my students’ work and provided feedback.

As we received comments, we began a discussion about perspective, critical and constructive feedback, and self-reflection. My students then completed action plans they can use to improve future long-term assessments.

Tim Kramer, 6th grade social studies teacher, Barrington Middle School–Prairie Campus, CUSD 220, Barrington, Illinois

Believe in Yourself

Above all, children need to believe in themselves: their worth, their value, their potential, and their genius. Spend a few minutes each day getting to know your students—their interests, their passions, their vulnerabilities, their lives outside of school. Listen to them. Honor them. Love them. Let children know you care and that you authentically believe in not only their current ability, but also their future capability. The transformative effect of cultivating this belief is more powerful than content knowledge—it has the potential to change lives.

Steve Figurelli, supervisor of elementary education, Public Schools of Edison Township, Edison, New Jersey

The Difference Between Possible and Reasonable

It never ceases to amaze me how often the lack of critical-thinking skills contributes to confusion and personal hardship. As a science teacher, parent, and student of life, my questions are, Does this make sense? Is this possible? Is this reasonable?

The critical-thinking skills you use to make sense of your results in the science lab are the same skills you need in real life to decide where to invest your money. Given what you started with and what you did, does your result make sense? Determining whether something is possible or reasonable is important in separating science from fiction. It’s also the same analysis needed to delineate between a great opportunity and one that’s too good to be true. The skill translates to everyday life: Just because you can get a loan for a new car doesn’t mean you should buy it now.

Andrea Reynolds, district testing coordinator, Northside ISD, San Antonio, Texas

Finish What You Started

Portage Township Schools has developed a framework for nine areas of character development related to academic achievement. One of those life skills embedded into our schools’ culture is grit. The students, staff, and families of Portage Township Schools recognize that having grit provides students with the ability to meet high expectations for academic success.

Our students know that grit means having the courage to finish what you started, despite obstacles, with persistence and resilience. We continue to partner with the Portage community to model the behaviors associated with grit by offering students praise and encouragement after they experience both difficulty and failure at school, home, and in the community.

Amanda Alaniz, elementary principal, Portage Township Schools, Portage, Indiana

Time Trackers

I have found that the one skill my students need most is time organization, not time management. Instead of having my students plan how much time they have, I encourage them to decide how much time they need. If they have a soccer game at 5:00 and it is now 3:00, we discuss what needs to be done before the game and estimate the time needed for it. This includes travel time to the field, searching for their uniform, and filling water bottles. Then we work backward to decide how much time we have left and what needs to be done first.

Kim McLean, instructional coach, Calgary Academy, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Communication Is Key

The life skill I have found my students need the most is communication—both verbal and nonverbal. I strive to help my kindergarten English as a second language (ESL) students gain English communication skills through rigorous and engaging practices in the language domains: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I first create a classroom environment that is safe, welcoming, and positive for my young learners. They must feel comfortable to try new things and to learn to communicate in English with me, other teachers, peers, and others outside the classroom. I promote the importance of learning English to be able to communicate with others in the real world and to create better lives.

Katie Gardner, ESL teacher, Knollwood Elementary, Salisbury, North Carolina

Compassionate Listeners

In my class, I have helped my students gain compassion by giving them time to be open and understanding of one another. In my room, students can take the chance to care for others in meaningful and productive ways.

We extend that solution-oriented mindset into curriculum-relevant applications. For example, I divided my small group of 8th graders into separate teams this year. Because they have been with the same students since 4th grade, the split granted students’ the opportunity to meet new friends and experience the emotional fracturing that comes from separation. To reconnect in our time together, we constructed a class cookbook of recipes based on their diverse cultural heritages. This publication gave students time to be actively engaged in a meaningful assignment, and also to be listeners for their companions.

Yvonne-Nicole Maisel de St. Croix, academically and intellectually gifted specialist, Carteret County Schools, Beaufort, North Carolina

Establishing Self-Worth

The most important life skill for all human beings is self-worth. The only way to gain that skill is by finding success.

My children are the defeated ones—the ones with anxiety issues, bad behavior, and disabilities. How do I help them develop self-worth? My children become part of a team the minute they step in the room. My children ask questions and feel that any question is valuable. I notice them and always find something to compliment. This includes words of success like “Good question,” “I never thought of it that way,” and “Thanks for bringing that to my attention.” Why do my students succeed? I value them. After all, are they not society’s most valuable resource?

Janice Koch, department head LSS, Abbotsford Senior Secondary School, British Columbia, Canada

Elementary Interns

At our elementary school, our 5th grade students work as school interns. Interested students apply by written application, followed by an interview. They are expected to sign in when they report to work (typically before school starts). They are expected to show up to their jobs on time. I believe this will get our children ready for the jobs they will have after they graduate from high school and beyond.

William Campbell, principal, Gainesville City School System, Gainesville, Georgia

Ensuring Student Success

As an elementary ESL teacher, I work to instill self-confidence in my students. From day one, I have students greet school administrators and faculty and introduce themselves so that they are well known in the school.

As a reading specialist, I give students the gift of systematic phonics instruction so they know how to unlock the mystery of the alphabetic code. I provide instruction in decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and ultimately comprehension, which I make palatable through the use of chants, songs, movement, technology, lots of practice, and most important, a bevy of smiles and approbation to ensure student success.