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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Things We Learn From Our Students

Every year, in June, our school board has a special event called Staff Recognition Night. During this auspicious occasion, we honour those staff members who are retiring. Our retirees are asked if they would like to make a speech, and many of them do. I love hearing those speeches and listening to how our various staff members have been modelled and shaped by their careers in education. 

One of my favourite speeches this year was by a Secondary teacher named Mark Whinton. Mark taught Tech as a Department Head at one of our high schools for twenty years. In his speech, he shared how he was influenced and supported by his many colleagues. But what I really loved about his speech was how Mark shared what he has learned from his students over the years. 

I've asked Mark if I could share his comments here on my blog and he graciously agreed. 

CC licensed photo  shared by Flickr user DigitalRalph
From my students I've learned a few things over the years, primarily about technology;
            1. Be an early adopter of technology - while students were learning Facebook back in 2007 the             Board was busy blocking it on our intranet system so they couldn't use it but a                                         student showed me and others an easy way around it. - As of last August the Board now has its             own Facebook page and it can be accessed from school - who is teaching who here?
2. Go to YouTube (now the third most visited place on the planet) was the “go to” place if you wanted to fix something.
3. What they were interested in was all self taught and they didn't do it for a credit or money but simply because they were interested in learning it. - texting, developing, editing and sharing images, videos and music. Creating and using social media sites developing websites and blogs etc. Amazingly I realized they had created nothing short of a new system of knowledge. This system is so prevalent and undeniable that in today’s society the primary source of knowledge comes from a system of digital news not a classroom, not a newspaper, not a book and not a teacher. It comes from everyone and anyone at anytime.
So in my retirement I see myself putting to good use the lessons I have been taught by my students by creating an HCDSB NEWS site for former students, and staff, something I hope that will keep me connected to my former students and my many friends at the HCDSB.

When I suggest to some teachers that they tear down their classroom walls by encouraging their students to connect to the world outside of the classroom, they tell me they are not yet comfortable with the technology. I think they need to learn from Mark Whinton's experience. Students are teaching themselves how to use social media to share, connect and learn from one another, not because they are being told to, just because they are interested in learning how. We need to jump on that bandwagon. We don't need to be comfortable to do so. Our students, even the youngest ones, will teach us! We can and should be learners together in the classroom. 

We need more teachers like Mark Whinton who recognize that in education we can't afford to be the last ones joining in the digital world. We need to be the early adopters, the trend setters, the ones willing to take the risks. That is what we need our students to become when they get out into the world to take care of us in our retirement, the innovators and problems solvers. We need to start promoting that now!

As you step into your classroom in the next few weeks, please think about technology. How will you make it available to your students? What would you like them to teach you about their digital worlds? How will you use the ability to connect with others outside the classroom to stimulate and empower your students this year?

Friday, 18 July 2014

Exploring Fractions with a Growth Mindset

I love summer. I love it for so many reasons. One of the reasons I love summer is because it gives me the opportunity to tutor students at my own pace with no "curriculum" other than what I believe to be good instructional practice to follow.

This summer I'm tutoring a 10 year old who has just finished Grade Five. I have worked with this student before, (I will call her Grace because she's an incredibly graceful young lady), and I know that she has struggled with Math for the last few years. Grace is pretty typical of many students that I have taught. Traditional math instruction is not that effective for her. She is quiet, and if something doesn't make sense to her she won't ask questions, preferring not to single herself out. 

Grace also has some issues with her short term memory. Many of her teachers have expected her to learn her addition and multiplication facts by rote memory. That is just not a realistic expectation for Grace. She has difficulty memorizing facts. Last summer, Grace and I explored repeated addition, skip counting, and making groups. Although she doesn't know her facts with lightening speed, she can figure out any multiplication question using strategies that makes sense to her. She understands what multiplication means. But some of her teachers don't value this, and as a result, at the tender age of 10, she does not really see herself as a "math person". 

I also love the summer because it gives me time to work on my own professional learning. In past summers I have taken Marilyn Burns' Math Solutions course and attended our Ministry's Math Camppp. This summer is no different and I am currently taking Jo Boaler's MOOC How to Learn Math. (You can watch the Youtube videos here). There is a common thread through all of the learning - Math is not a textbook subject! You don't develop deep understandings of mathematical concepts by completing worksheets or workbooks. In order to develop conceptual understanding in math, in order to see connections between concepts, in order to love math and think creatively in math, students need multiple opportunities to explore math. I love the summer because I can work one on one with students, give them those opportunities to explore and construct their own understandings, and watch and listen to learn how they learn. 

I knew that Grace had had trouble with fractions this year, so that is where we started this summer. 

This was an SOS I got from Grace in the Spring

More than ever, I've been trying to use Growth Mindset language. I've been using "traffic light comprehension" with Grace, asking her frequently if she is red, yellow or green light in her understanding, and asking her to really pay attention to her own learning. I'm being careful about the language I'm using, drawing attention to how successful she has been with her persistence and hard work. I'm also making sure that if she doesn't get something, we add the word "yet". I give her lots of time to explore her understandings and allow her misconceptions to "float" out there, merely asking questions that allow her to re-evaluate her own beliefs and re-adjust her understandings. 

We've spent three 90 minute lessons just on representing proper fractions using fraction circles, fraction strips, sets, area models and number lines. We compared these representations looking at the connections between them. I've been encouraging Grace to name her learning so that she can see her own growth and take ownership for her understandings. Grace has concluded that:
- the numerator counts how many parts you have (or are discussing)
- the denominator tells how parts make up the whole
- a proper fraction is always less than one
- in a proper fraction the numerator is always less than the denominator
- different fractions can represent equivalent amounts e.g. 1/2 is the same as 5/10 which is the same as 0.5
- the equal sign (=) means "the same as"or "is equivalent to" and not "the answer is..."

Grace doesn't have to memorize these things because she came to these understandings on her own. 

During one lesson while exploring proper fractions Grace said "My teacher kept giving me questions like this: 2/3 = ?/6.  I didn't know how to answer those". Those questions had absolutely no meaning for Grace at all.  She did not know what the teacher was asking or looking for. I pointed to the number line we had created and how we had divided it up many different ways. I pointed to the half and asked "How many ways could we name this fraction?" She said we could call it "1/2 or 5/10". Then she went to the fraction circles we had on the fridge and said "It's like 1/2 is the same as 2/4 and 3/6". I explained that is what the teacher was asking, that she was asking what fraction with a denominator of 6 was the same size as a fraction of 2/3. All of a sudden the question made complete sense to Grace but she needed to connect the question to a visual representation. 

 Today we began working on improper fractions. I could not believe how quickly she picked it up.  I guess it was easy after all the work we had done on proper fractions. Grace had such a deep understanding about the role of the numerator and the denominator she quickly deduced that if the numerator was greater than the denominator we were talking about a fraction greater than one. She had no trouble representing them in any format. Next week I will show her how to write an improper fraction as a mixed number. This should be easy for her to understand since she's already been naming them out loud as "two and a quarter" for example because she can see them pictorially as a combination of wholes and fractions.

Along the way we've been comparing fractions. As we put the fractions on the number line, as we use the fraction circles on the fridge, and as we draw our area models, I'm always asking "What do you notice about these two fractions". Eventually, I will teach Grace about common denominators, but not for a while, not until she has a really solid understanding of fractions, and has an idea of benchmark fractions on a number line so that she can estimate the relative size of a fraction. I want Grace to have many ways to compare fractions. She has already noticed that the larger the denominator, the smaller the fractional piece. I want her to realize that 7/8 is less than 9/10 because each fraction is missing only one piece but the tenths are smaller pieces, so 9/10 represents more. I want her to know that 9/20 is closer to half than 4/10 is, and I want her to know this without having to use a common denominator because she understands fractional parts.

I'm really enjoying the Jo Boaler MOOC. One thing that Jo said was that intuition is an extremely important part of math competency. I've often thought that having mathematical intuition was a genetic gift - I guess you could say I had a Fixed Mindset about math ability. But Jo has conducted research to show that it is mathematical understanding that helps a person to develop mathematical intuition. And having mathematical intuition, in turn, helps a person to develop their mathematical understandings. Jo Boaler explains it as an iterative process. This makes total sense to me. I'm helping Grace to understand fractions. I'm hoping this will help her develop an intuitive sense about proportional reasoning. Once she has honed this intuition, it will help her solve problems and make sense of problems involving fractions, decimals, percentages, rates, and ratios. It is my goal that Grace sees the connections between all of these beautiful math concepts.

Graces always texts me before she comes over. I told her I had bought her some fraction circles she could take home. She wrote "Do the fractions stick on the fridge?"She wants some like mine so she can play school at home and use them for math homework. Then she wrote "I can't wait". She clearly loves math, she just doesn't love it at school. Isn't that a shame?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Getting Your Technology to "Bing"

Four years ago I got a Kobo for my birthday.  I was really excited to have an e-reader, but after downloading my first book, I actually found it kind of hard to read on the Kobo. I had trouble navigating the pages, I'd try to turn the page but instead the menu screen would pop up. Sometimes the screen would freeze on me too. I couldn't figure out how to use the highlight or search features. So, while I read the occasional book on my Kobo, I mostly continued to read conventional books.

Then, two years ago, I went on an extended European holiday. Traditional books would be too heavy for my suitcase so I loaded up the Kobo and I've been using it ever since. But the other day I stumbled upon a book titled "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" in a book store; I was so intrigued I bought the book on the spot - in hard copy!

Harold did not let me down, it was a great read, but the whole time I was reading it I was quite frustrated. I couldn't highlight or bookmark the pages the way I had finally learned to do with my Kobo. I had also gotten into the habit of emailing favourite quotes I'd highlighted to my friends. I couldn't do that with a traditional book. While reading "Harold Fry" I suddenly realized that all of the things I used to find difficult and frustrating when using the e-reader had now become automatic. I guess it had happened so gradually, that I didn't even notice that I had moved to that level of not just being comfortable with my Kobo, I actually preferred it, and why wouldn't I? I can do much more with the Kobo than with a traditional book. I can search for a line or even a word and find it in seconds and my Kobo tells me exactly how many hours it will take me to finish my book. With my Kobo app on my phone and iPad, I can read my book wherever I happen to be waiting, and it asks if I want to sync my devices so I never have to search for my page.
While reading "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" I had to keep sticking tabs in for my favourite quotes, and I couldn't forward them on through email without first typing them up!

Learning how to use new technology is exactly that - it is learning. Learning can be uncomfortable and it requires lots of practice. With technology, you have to put in enough practice time to develop a level of automaticity and fluency to actually make using the technology worthwhile.

It is June now, and in the world of Curriculum, it is time to purchase textbooks. I've asked teachers if they would prefer to have a digital text - a text that includes a PDF version kids could download and print if they truly prefer a hard copy, but also includes online quizzes, videos, highlighting features, note-taking features, interactive activities, links to online resources, a calendar, and options for teachers to push notifications through to students. But the teachers I've offered this option to say that they, and their students, prefer to have a traditional text.  I couldn't understand at all why.

Then I thought of me and my Kobo. I actually preferred reading my traditional books at first too. Why? Because I was fluent at reading a book, I could get right to it and there was no new learning involved. But once I made the effort to learn how to use my e-reader, and got over that initial learning hump, I discovered that I preferred to read on my Kobo hands-down. There really was no competition.

I can remember back in the Seventies my grandmother telling my mom she didn't need an automatic washer, she preferred her wringer washer. I thought she was crazy, but now I realize she was afraid of the effort involved in learning something new.

Can you imagine using a wringer washer now? Or a rotary dial phone? Or getting up to change the channels on the t.v.? Making the switch to an automatic washer, a remote control, a tablet, a smart phone, all require new learning and are uncomfortable at first. (It took me a year to get comfortable at using the remote to switch from the DVR to my Apple t.v. or the Blue Ray). In the end, making the effort to learn is always worth while!

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? You sure can. I got this iMessage from my 73 year old mom the other day.

My mom meant to send this message to her 76 year old sister Eleanor. She was trying to help my aunt turn on her notifications button on the iPad. I think it is a beautiful example of learning made visible and persistence when something is uncomfortable and difficult. I think I owe my love of technology to my mom, she has every new gadget known to man, and won't sleep until she can get her newest gadget up and running, whatever it may be.

Making the switch to new technologies requires new learning, whether it's moving to a digital text or a Learning Management System. But in the end, we know that the tools and features they provide offer more and better opportunities for our students to learn.

As a teacher, are you making sure you are keeping up with the new technologies available to help your students get the best learning experience possible?

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Professional Learning in the 21st Century

Thursday was a good day.  I was invited to attend a day of sharing and reflection with teachers who had participated in some action research on 21st Century Teaching and Learning.  I got to listen to and take part in some terrific conversations that included more questions than they did answers.  I find that exciting.  I hope the teachers who attended felt the same way that I did.

More so than ever, I've been trying hard to pay attention to the impact Professional Development opportunities have on professional learning. I still have a hard time understanding the difference between "Professional Development" and "Professional Learning." I get the feeling that "Professional Development" is something that is done to you and it may or may not result in Professional Learning.  I see "Professional Learning" more as something you actively participate in and take ownership for.

The issue I'm concerned about is that many educators often complain about Professional Development (with good reason).  It takes them away from their class and students, often makes them feel incompetent suggesting that they could and should be doing most things differently and better, and can seem irrelevant to what they believe their students need to be successful learners, i.e. they don't buy in. It is not life-giving and it does not often result in positive changes in student learning.

I've tried hard this year to move away from providing "Professional Development" but rather support teachers in their professional learning. With some schools and with some teachers, I think this has worked out very well. There are many teachers who truly have a learning stance and they welcome opportunities to learn together.  But I've also encountered teachers who feel overwhelmed when it is suggested they learn something new, who feel there is no time, no support, and no follow-up.

We have adopted the ISTE standards for students in our board. We want to help our students develop into collaborative and creative problem solvers who use technology in innovative ways to make the world a better place, and who can successfully communicate their ideas with others. It is not enough for them to be consumers of information, we want them to be knowledge creators. But what about our teachers? There are ISTE standards for teachers too. As teachers in the 21st Century, we need to facilitate and inspire students' creativity and learning. We need to be comfortable with trying out new technologies that enhance student learning and empower our students to be drivers of their own education. We need to use formative assessment practices to evaluate the impact of our teaching and make adjustments accordingly. We need to teach our students to be metacognitive and set their own goals for learning. To do all of this, we need to engage in continuous professional learning and reflection.

But so much of the Professional Development we provide for educators uses archaic structures and methodologies. The Power Point presentation just doesn't cut it anymore. If we believe in 21st Century teaching and learning, then those of us providing professional learning opportunities for educators must model what we know are effective teaching and learning practices. If it works for students, I believe it will work for adult learners as well.

How do we "light a fire" in tired, over-whelmed teachers who are often just trying to keep their heads above water?  How do we empower them to be leaders and changers in education? Making the shift to student-driven education can be a huge learning curve, but somehow, if we can convince teachers that the effort up-front will lead not only to improvements in learning for their students but also increased engagement for teachers themselves, perhaps they will buy in and be open to making that shift.

But the shift is a huge one, and the learning curve, especially for some teachers, can be steep. No, it is not all about the technology, but digital fluency is a big part of helping students become collaborative problem-solvers who communicate beyond the classroom walls. Teachers need to become digitally fluent if they are going to support their students in becoming 21st Century learners. This can be a huge challenge for many teachers, and they need to know that they will be supported in their efforts and that their efforts will be worth while.

In order to support teachers with this shift, our Professional Development needs to be teacher-driven. We should differentiate the support we provide based on teacher need. It is important to encourage our teachers to be metacognitive, asking them, what do YOU need to learn about in order to be effective in moving toward technology-enabled student-driven eduction? Formative assessment practices, particularly self-assessment practices, are necessary for teachers as well as for students. Teachers need to have a voice in what the professional learning they are engaging in will look like. As leaders, we have to ask, "what is working for you; what isn't working? What do you need me to do differently so that you can be successful?"

Then we need to model and support teachers in becoming networked learners and provide on-going, "guided" support as they learn. 21st Century teachers are knowledge-builders, establishing parameters for our professional practice, leaders who support and learn from one another.

It stands to reason that taking a blended learning approach to professional learning is a logical next step for Professional Development and one that I hope to develop next year.

What would your ideal Professional Learning opportunity look like?

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Using Classroom Conversation to Push the Thinking and Deepen Understanding

CC licensed photo  shared by Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

I am a huge believer in Assessment for and Assessment as Learning. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that it is Formative Assessment practices that are the game changer in education. I think it is paramount that in the 21st Century, we help students to develop into critical thinkers who are able to assess their own understandings and abilities. When they can do this accurately, they can set goals for themselves and take steps towards deepening their understandings and skills.

That is why it is so important to reflect on the way we are currently giving feedback to our students and encouraging them to give feedback to one another.

I don't believe in formulaic responses, not for responses to reading (please, no more "A.P.E." or "Point, Prove, Comment") and not for responding to someone else's work. I think "two stars and a wish" might have been a good place to start, but the more I read students' "stars and wishes" for their peers' work, the more I feel we are straying from the point of the exercise.

I fully admit, I used "two stars and a wish" with my own students.  But over time I started to feel deep down that this wasn't achieving the goal I had set out for. It first really hit me when I was having my students do a "Write Around" which I had learned about from Harvey Daniels. (Click on link for full instructions).  In a Write Around, students write a response or an opinion to something they have read or viewed, and then they pass their response to the person beside them. That person must then comment on what the first person has written, and then pass the notebook on again. The notebook then gets passed to a third person, who must comment on both the original response and their predecessor's comment. It is a great way to teach your students to dialogue, to push one another's thinking through questioning and extending.

Unfortunately, my students were writing things like "good job telling the main idea, and your printing is so neat, next time try to add more detail." How was this pushing anyone's thinking?  I have seen this time and time again in my travels as a Consultant. Teachers teach their students to "assess" their peers' work and provide them with feedback using "hearts and arrows" or "stars and wishes" without really teaching students WHY exactly they are doing this. Isn't it to push one another's thinking?

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching is assessing student work, putting a name to what makes one piece better than another and giving feedback that truly tells the student what to do next to improve. I think it is important to help our students develop a nose for quality, and I think it is important that we teach our students self-assessment and peer-assessment strategies. But we must not confuse "assessment" with "evaluation".  We need to teach our students how to use DESCRIPTIVE words rather than EVALUATIVE words when giving one another feedback. That means WE as teachers need to learn the difference first, and monitor what WE say when we are providing feedback. To truly develop a community of learners that push and extend one another's thinking we will gain more if we focus less on asking students to give "hearts and arrows" or "stars and wishes" to one another and more on teaching them how to converse with and challenge one another.

I love this Ministry monograph on Grand Conversation in the Junior Classroom. We need to teach our students how to converse with one another in a way that pushes their thinking and makes their learning visible to themselves and others. We need to teach them to address one another's misconceptions, to question discrepant events and ideas, and to seek clarity from one another.

I would far prefer to hear a student say "That doesn't make sense to me, why did you put the decimal there?" than "Good job solving that problem, your graph uses a proper scale, just remember to use labels." Students need to challenge and build on one another's ideas. They need to be making comments that push their peers for clarity, "I can't tell who's talking in this paragraph, is it the mother or the kid?" or "I don't see how you went from this step to this one, I got a completely different solution, I think you missed a step." Instead of "Great job using humour" how about "I cracked up when I read the part about the dog in the spaceship, it was hilarious!"

The first step in teaching your students how to think critically and converse critically with one another is to sit back and listen to them; less teacher talk, and more student-to-student talk. What do you notice? What types of things are they picking up on?  What types of questions are they asking one another? Are they even asking one another questions?  Pay attention to how they converse, and then bring it to their attention, making their conversation visible. Try video-taping them, and then analyzing the video together. Challenge them, "Why did you say that to her?", "What else would you like to ask him?", "Do you understand his work now?"  Monitor what you say to your students, model for them by challenging them and seeking clarity from them. Teach them to paraphrase, "So what you are saying is...".  If you need help, read the monograph.  And then together, with your students, establish the criteria for having a critical conversation.

Let me know how it goes!

Monday, 14 April 2014

Making the Shift to “Conditions Necessary for Success”

From an historical perspective, our public education system is in its infancy, and inclusive education is something new. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the family was the basic unit where socialization and education took place.  Families were dependent upon the economic contributions of their children.  Any formal education in Canada during that time was the responsibility of religious orders and its focus was on catechism. In the early 19th century, the idea of formalized schooling began to gain some popularity.  With the advent of new and massive immigration along with the move from a rural to an industrialized society during the mid-1800’s, the push for public education became more prevalent. Legislation for Special Education only began to take root in the latter half of the 20th century. 

So while education often looks to be a static institution, it is actually an evolving entity that responds to the changing cultural forces in society.  As we move forward in the 21st century, it is my firm hope that we will no longer require a distinction for “Special Education” but rather, the focus will be on accessible learning for all students; i.e. the focus will be on “equity” rather than “equality”.

Note: This image was adapted by OEHR from the original graphic:
Currently, to support and guarantee just treatment for our identified students we use Individualized Education Plans.  But educators of the 21st century must acknowledge the uniqueness of all individuals and recognize that instruction and assessment should be tailored, or individualized, for ALL students.  Hattie’s research indicates that labeling students with an identification actually impacts their achievement negatively.  How much better education would be if we could do away with labels, and start focusing rather on the conditions necessary for success for each of our students!

Teaching and learning in the 21st century is shifting to a focus on Assessment FOR Learning and Assessment AS Learning practices.  With this shift to formative assessment, education will be learning-driven as opposed to achievement-driven.  21st century teaching and learning will be student-centered and begin with student assets and needs, thus making the IEP and formal identification superfluous. 21st century teaching and learning will make accessible to students the technology and teaching practices necessary for learning to take place and for all students to meet, and yes, even exceed their current potential. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Why Are You Blending?

Today I attended the On the Rise K-12: Enhancing Digital Learning Conference.  It was a great experience, and I met some really passionate people that I was truly inspired by.  One such person was Anthony Perrotta.  He led a session on Student Voices.

This year, some of our Secondary teachers were provided a new digital resource to support learning for an Applied-level course. The resource is really a digital text, with animations, applets, videos, bookmarking features, note-taking features, a calendar, quiz tools, etc.  Basically, it is essentially a Learning Management System, not just the e-text teachers were expecting to get.

The feedback on this resource has been pretty mixed.  While the teachers are seeing some merits to having this e-resource, they are also finding that perhaps we targeted the wrong students.  It has been suggested that students in an Academic course, who are perhaps more self-motivated might benefit more from this resource.  Overall, some of the teachers felt that the students in the Applied stream work better with a traditional text and traditional handouts.

I was surprised by this feedback. I believed that students who often struggle with dense text and who lack organizational skills would benefit from a blended learning environment.  But after today, I realized that not all blended learning environments are created equally.  Just because we provide teachers with digital tools does not mean that they will change their teaching practice.  The tools are only helpful if we choose to use them to teach differently.

A blended learning environment is not beneficial to all students all of the time.  Anthony Parrotta reminded me that it's not the Learning Management System or the technology or even the "blending" that makes school engaging and motivates students.  It's about using the technology and digital tools to permit our students to be the drivers of their own education.  When we provide teachers with new technology, we have an obligation to provide them with support that will help them consider how they can use those tools to teach differently.  There is no point in using a 21st century tool in a 20th century way.

For blended learning to positively impact our students, both teachers and students need to take on new roles in education.  The teacher needs to become a co-learner in the classroom.  Teachers and students need to be jointly responsible for the knowledge building that happens in the classroom.  This is a huge shift in paradigm for many of our teachers and our students; they need time and opportunities to discuss what this means and what it would look like in their classrooms.

Anthony said "Student voice is grounded in ownership".  I firmly believe, I in fact KNOW from experience, that ALL students can take ownership for their learning when explicitly taught how to do so and given the tools they need to be successful.  Digital technology can not only engage our students, it can empower them to be active participants in their learning rather than passive recipients of information.

Teachers need support to know how to teach this to their students.  It is not enough to teach our students content knowledge.  We have to teach them how to be learners.  The power of a Learning Management System is not in its ability to provide students with online content and its not in its ability to grade students or even for them to easily submit their assignments to a dropbox.  The power of a blended learning environment is in its ability to put students in the driver's seat, to empower them to become collaborators in their own learning, and to choose who they would like to connect with to share that learning and how they would like to share it.

How are you using a blended learning format to ignite a passion for learning in your students?