Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Year in Learning at Elk Grove: AP Spanish Literature and Culture - Living our values

By Dean Burrier-Sanchis and Mark Heintz

This is part of a blog series intended to document and define learning at Elk Grove High School throughout the 2018-2019 school year in order to increase student learning, give professionals autonomy, increase trust in our learning community, and foster a sense of personal-intellectual collegiality within the building across departments. You can read all of the previous posts here.  I am going into each teacher's class four times and then they are reflecting alongside their students on the learning that took place and what they hope for.

Dean is part of a group that came together and defined learning.  Part of that group's goal is not only to have a definition but to live its values.  In other words, try to create conditions to represent the values stated in the definition.  I visited Dean's class and met with him after.  Here is our group's definition and his reflection on how attempts to live his values.

Learning is the integration of values, or importance to the individual, and beliefs with new and relevant information, skills, and/or abilities for long-term application in life outside of the immediate task.

The process of learning is an evolving journey that includes engaging tasks and processes, emphasizes voice and shapes meaning and authenticity.

The product of all of this is an ever-evolving worldview, the development of skills and awareness to continually evaluate and reflect upon themselves and the world around them.

Now that we have a working definition of learning and some values behind it, how are you putting your beliefs in to practice?  

I believe the process element of learning is something I am really integrating well, in particular in this lesson. I strive to have student voice and to allow for more authentic applications of course objectives and goals. I think I need to develop more on the product end here. Students were engaged in skills of writing and editing, and working on evaluation, but I don’t know how encompassing of a world view or how much this lesson allowed students to reflect on themselves and the world around them, particularly because our analysis of the song at the end was limited to the final minutes. That said I think there were poignant messages that connected to students and will connect more in future classes.

What is holding you back and not letting you live your values?  

I do feel at times the urgency, sometimes as an afterthought, to do real, hard test prep. Some of our higher level students feel more drawn to and motivated by that practice, others do not. I try to disguise this and makes this as relevant and engaging as possible, but I also feel the need to expose them to the difficulty of the exam and feel like they are developing the confidence they need to be successful in May. I worry that if they are not confident heading into the exam, or not adequately prepared for the rubrics, the requirements and the nuance of the exam, they will not be successful, or worse not register for the exam. I think a lot about how this year, class and experience will shape the way they look back on the experience of this year and their 4 years at EG. These pressures sometimes keep me from taking more risks and confronting objectives in goals more freely.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Lit Circles in Human Geography

By Mark Heintz

“Why is your book better than mine?”  I know I have written about this comment a few times in the past, but it continues to play in my mind over and over again.  Kristen Lesniak and Jackie Randall started using literature circles in their sophomore English courses last year.  Many visits and even more conversations later, I started a lit circle in my freshmen human geography class.  Despite my love of them and enthusiasm to use them in my class because it gave more students autonomy and agency over their learning, one of my students pointed to a shortcoming of the process by asking, “Why is your book better than mine?” 

Why Lit Circles

Lit circles resonate with my beliefs on learning.  In lit circles, students read for themselves.  They make connections to their world and then share those understanding with others in their group to make those understandings richer and deeper.  Lit circles emphasize voice and shape their world around them.  Another reason I love them is the process deemphasizes the teacher knowing all of the answers.  I am learning and reading with my them.  Lit circles create a culture of learners, readers, and collaborators as its focus are on reflection upon themselves and the world around them with the people around them.

Even though I loved using lit circles last year, there was something off about the way I implemented it.  I was still the driver and the student’s question clearly showed the issue.  It was too much of me telling my students what they had to do and how they had to do it.  Most of the problems stemmed from everyone reading the same book. 

I went back to Kristen and Jackie and learned how they read a variety of books.  To allow kids to read different books I partnered with my librarian, Dawn Ferencz, to help get into a number of choices for the students.  With attention to the class’s essential question: To what extent can we do whatever we want to the Earth and its people? To focus it even more, the current unit is Political Geography which made the essential question steered towards how laws stated or not, governments, family practices, or social structures are dictating the behaviors of the people in the book. Dawn found ten books that aligned to the theme that the students could choose from.   Each book offered a unique perspective on how people treat each other and allowed students to come together to make sense of how that relates to their understanding of the world.

The Process

On day one Dawn introduced each book and had the students select three they were interested in reading. From their choices, I created groups of four or five. For lit circles to be successful, they need a lot of class time. To ensure their success, I had four consecutive days dedicated to getting them off the ground.  Two of those days, including the first, were full reading days. To learn alongside with them, I read one of the books I hadn’t read.  With the exception of one group, everyone started reading without any coercion.  That one group started reading once they saw I was reading;   We were in it together.  The kids and I read for forty minutes and then I noticed a few kids looking at the clock.  They only became restless after forty minutes of sustained reading! 

On day two, Dawn and I worked together and started with the students coming up with questions. We used the question formulation technique to allow each group to work together to get all of their questions.  We centered their thoughts and ideas about the rules and laws that dictated the behaviors in the book. These rules could be implicit or explicit laws from anywhere in the book.  It didn’t matter who created the rules, we just wanted the students to generate questions.   Afterward, we borrowed/stole from Kristen and Jackie some guides to help focus the students' thoughts on their beginning understandings of their book and the questions that they generated.

From there, the students started recording and talking about their book.  Dawn and I bopped around the different circles.  We tried not to dictate the conversation. The process repeated itself over the next days.  Dawn and I ran into a bit of a problem; one of the groups finished the book after day two.  Most of the kids in that group went home and finished the book after the first discussion.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a great problem to have, but now Dawn and I are trying to figure out what they should do next.  As I write this sentence, I realize the mistake in my thinking.  Dawn and I are trying to come up with everything they are going to do, which goes against the purpose behind the lit circles.  


The partnership with Dawn was/is one of the best teaching moments in my career. We had a similar goal and a vision for how we were going to implement it. Having Dawn was crucial to the success of lit circles.  One of the days, a group was struggling.  Dawn went to the group and built on their strengths instead of telling them what they weren't doing.  She worked through their questions and guided them to the place the group wanted to go.  She asked the members to make claims and back those understandings with evidence.  She dug a little deeper and asked the students to explain their thinking.  I’m in awe of how she worked with the students and not talked at them.  

The greater partnership that occurred was the one that developed with Dawn, the students, and myself.  We were in it together. We read, recorded, and worked through our understandings together.  We were all learners and we were learners together.  That's what I wanted from the beginning. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

S1E7: Jessica Maciejewski "My journey as a learner"

By Mark Heintz

Jessica had a non-traditional path to becoming a teacher.  Her unique path of Elk Grove has lad her to embrace that mentality that teaching will constantly evolve.  She says in the podcast, "Teaching will be refined for the rest of my life."  She is an amazing educator and is passionate about her students and viewing them as learners.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019


By Mark Heintz

Earlier in my teaching career, I had a rough class. It felt like every kid had something serious in their life.  Some were abused, battling drugs, coping with depression, or been in multiple fights.  The deans knew almost everyone in my class by name, and they were only freshmen. It seemed the smallest thing would cause the whole class to explode one minute and calm down the next.  The smallest thing ignited the entire class only to change the very next day.  One time, I put two girls in a group for a short something or other.  They blew up. The two couldn’t stand the thought of being next to each other for five minutes.  One ran out of the class when she saw her name next to the other girls.  She didn’t even talk to me, just ran out of the room. A few minutes later the dean told me the two had a recent incident and shouldn’t be together.  The very next day, the two girls were SHARING a sucker.  The class drove me crazy.  I hate to say it, but I dreaded going. Eventually, I hid behind school policy. I sent some kids to the dean as I tried to maintain control for the other kids.  At least, I told myself I was doing it for them.  I managed to get through my curriculum, but in the process, I stopped focusing on the kids as learners and stopped caring about ALL of them. I made concessions with myself as I hid behind the policy.  I’m still haunted by it years later.

Most of those kids in that class were troublesome to all of their teachers. I checked in on each of them throughout their four years. Unfortunately, two of those kids didn’t make it through high school; both were students of color.  Sadly, my experience is not uncommon.  For decades, minority students in Illinois and across the country have been disproportionally disciplined with suspensions and expulsions.  In an attempt to curb those results, SB 100 passed a few years ago which legally changed what disciplinary actions a school could use.  Additionally, the Department of Education under Betsy Devos and the  Trump Administration did their own assessment on discipline late in 2018 and might mandate what schools will have to do in regards to student behavior.  Despite state or national rulings, there doesn’t seem to be a clear understanding of what discipline in schools means or what it means in the context of learning.

I wrote earlier in the year--and I still agree--that policies don’t instill character traits.  Old me believed that, but now I don't.  Just because we have a certain policy, students won’t miraculously become responsible, dedicated, hard-working, etc.  Maybe, at best, they become compliant.  More often, the more rigid the rule or system is, the more likely that students will be removed from classes.  Since I firmly believe that public schools are here for ALL kids, I generally agree with any policy that helps keep students in the classroom and creates conditions that make students feel welcomed. Not all classes are as tough as the one I had.  Which almost makes it worse.  If it’s only one or two kids in each class, then those kids can more easily be sent out in the name of the other ninety percent.  The biggest consequence for any student not being in class is not being in class.  It certainly was for my class.  They didn’t learn the course material and struggled for most of their high school career.  Given the current context of more minority students being removed than their white counterparts points to a flaw in how we enact policies.  When schools are here to allow students to learn, all students learn.

I keep kids in the classroom now. I haven’t sent a kid down to the dean for behavior since that class years ago. I know it may make me look soft.  But, since backing down on discipline, my scores have risen, attendance is better, I get to know my students, and I focus on learning.  When I was tough on discipline, I assigned the consequences to match the "appropriate" behavior.  Even though I knew it was wrong, I convinced myself it worked.  It was what I was supposed to do.  But, when I did, the students were removed, and their learning stopped.  Kicking the kids out was the easy part.  Focusing on each of them as an individual, learning their story, gaining their respect, learning together- that would have been hard. But, maybe that would have made the difference for them and kept them in school.

If we truly want ALL students to learn then every minute we have with our kids is precious.  Every minute they have with us should be precious to them. Let’s not remove them from the classroom in the name of discipline, when we are here for learning.  I wish I could go back and teach that class again.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

School Chat S1E6: Patrick McGing "Students as learners and leaders"

By Mark Heintz

Patrick McGing is a Career and Technical Education teacher at Elk Grove High School that learns with his students.   His students remodel an entire house that the district purchased from start to finish.  He constantly focuses on learning and pushing students for them to find their passion.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

How does your school define learning?

By Mark Heintz

While a school uses the word learning on a daily basis, does everyone in the community have the same meanings and beliefs about the world?  To get everyone to have that same understanding, I gathered a group of teachers last May to define learning at Elk Grove High School. I wanted to have a common definition of learning across the school. This post is a check-in to see what progress has been made.


Just a reminder to everyone reading that this group of teachers from all over the building with different levels of experience who have all come together with a common purpose (some arm pulling was required).  Along the way, each of us reflected alongside each other and our students.  We don’t claim to have any answers, just the desire to share what we are doing and come together to do it.  That experience is a major success.

Throughout the first semester, I visited each teacher’s classroom in the group two times and discussed the visit afterward. Everyone wrote a reflection of the lesson and personally defined learning. After the first quarter, I added a person to add a larger perspective (art - I’m sorry I didn’t include you in the first place).  As the semester ended and everyone defined learning, I compiled everyone’s definition and gathered the group again.  When we met, we read through everyone’s definitions, found commonalities and trends, and then started to define learning as a group.


I thought coming up with a common definition would be easier.  I think everyone in the group thought it would be easier.  Most of us struggled to define learning when it was just ourselves let alone when all of the definitions were next to each other.  The words mattered more when the same word was used in different contexts.  As the group met in December, we spent an entire hour choosing our words and coming up with the definition.  While tedious, we did come up with a working definition!


We ended up with a three-parts to the definition, because just having the definition wasn’t enough.  The group decided we needed statements to reflect what the learning process is and what the product of learning is.  Without further ado...

Learning is the integration of values, or importance to the individual, and beliefs with new and relevant information, skills, and/or abilities for long-term application in life outside of the immediate task.   
The process of learning is an evolving journey that includes engaging tasks and processes, emphasizes voice and shapes meaning and authenticity. 
The product of all of this is an ever-evolving worldview, the development of skills and awareness to continually evaluate and reflect upon themselves and the world around them.  

Next Steps

Next semester, each person in the group is committed to living the definition.  It’s one thing to come up with a statement, it’s completely another to have the classroom experience live up to the definition.  I will be going back into their classrooms and following up with a conversation.  As I go into their classrooms they are committed to having the lesson reflect their beliefs on learning. Cross your fingers and I will hopefully be sharing further progress of our journey.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

School Chat S1E5: Anthony Furman "Change the mindset"

By Mark Heintz

In the fifth episode of School Chat, I sat down with veteran physical education teacher, Anthony Furman.  He is ever-evolving and has made some incredible changes to the physical education program at Elk Grove High School this year.  His reflection will inspire you to change your mindset about traditional practices to focus on the student and learning.  As a bonus, Kerry Frazier from Grove Jr. High joined the recording of this episode.