Monday, January 30, 2012

Giving the Classroom Back to the Students

I am super excited to be giving my third webinar for the awesome blue bunnies group; SimpleK12 this Saturday during another one of their Days of Learning.  This time I will be presenting on something incredibly near and dear to me; student-centered learning and teaching in this type of a classroom.  I have done other webinars for SimpleK12 and they are a wonderful creative way to get PD for free!  So consider joining me Saturday at 1 PM ESt/2 PM CST for this webinar.  See how to register below.

Giving the Classroom Back to the Students: Letting Go and Learning More
Would you like for your students to connect at a deeper level with the curriculum, to really love school and learning? Then this session is for you - a beginning guide to student-centered learning.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

I Am the Job Creator

As the rhetoric fills the airwaves, I keep hearing two words over and over... job creators.  The job creators need tax breaks, the job creators have the right to be heard, we must focus on the job creators.  Well I am here to tell you something...

I drop my child off at daycare every day with a wonderful woman that teaches her how to be a member of this society - I am a job creator

I drive my car to work and sometimes stop for diesel at the local gas station, I am a job creator

I go to school and teach students the skills they need to be successful, I am a job creator

I shop for groceries to feed my family and try to stay local as much as possible, I am a job creator

I spend my extra money at the mall chasing the American dream, I am a job creator

When the economy dries up, my paycheck gets cut so that I can feel the pain of the real world.  Well I have felt the pain all along working a job that pays me little in money but much in love.  So don't tell me I am not a job creator, because I am the one the spends the money that keeps the economy going.  I am the one that keeps it local, buys American made, and worries about how my actions in my community affects those who held the jobs.  I am the job creator with everything I do.

Friday, January 27, 2012

We Need More Courageous Conversations

I am wrong.  I made a mistake.  It didn't work.  These are all words I have had to say frequently in all of the years of my teaching career.  They are not easy to say, nor easy to swallow, and yet those words are what have made me the educator I am today; someone who reflects, someone who realizes they are human, someone who admits fault.

In education we often put ourselves on pedestals, assuming no wrong.  We have all of the answers because that is what we need to have.  We have the solutions, the right ways.  We are trained professionals after all.  Except we don't always have those answers, or the right way to do something.  Things may not always work and the students do not always get the best education.

We must learn to admit when we are wrong.  We must learn to reflect upon our mistakes and make ourselves better.  We must realize we are not perfect and that others don't expect us to be.  We must have these courageous conversations about our own teaching, our grade levels, our classroom, and our schools.  We must reflect, we must discuss, and we must learn.  If we all fall under the illusion of perfection we will never change the way we do teaching.  We will never change to be better.  Our students will never learn from s that mistakes are glorious occasions that move us forward.  Start the conversation with yourself and then spread it.  All it takes is one courageous person to set the example.

And right after I sent this out Chad Lehman reminded me that we need courageous actions.  He is so right; take your courageous conversations and turn them into action.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When Students Speak Do We Even Really Listen?

Get us out of our seats.  Less homework.  Not so many tests.  More projects, more hands-on, more fun.  All things students will tell you if you ask them how school should be.  All things we have heard for years and yet many of us have yet to react to them.  We chalk their statements up to students being lazy; they don't want to work, that is why they want less homework.  They don't know their curriculum so they don't want to be tested on it.  I have too much to cover so they have to listen and stay in their seats while I lecture.  We have a plan, a program, and students are just another piece to plan for and to fit into everything we need to cover.  They are obstacles to be conquered, to be molded and shaped until they fit perfectly into our round holes whether they started out square or triangular.

So as the education debate rages and more and more voices join the discussion, I wonder why we don't listen to the one that should carry the most weight; the student.  Where are the children at these meetings.  Where are the future generations?  Not even invited.  And I don't mean just the high school students but the young ones, the ones that have just started school that still like to come, that still like to be excited, the ones that haven't been burned by a system that progresses whether they are with it or not.   Those students should have a seat at the table and when they speak we should really listen.  We should stop with our excuses and our assumptions of why they say these things and want these changes.  We should listen to their message and then actually believe it.  Let them speak, let them be heard, and let us change.

It is possible to make school fun through projects and student choice.  It is possible to cut out homework and still cover everything you need to cover.  It is possible to not test and still know where your students are academically.  It is possible to stop talking and let them be the leaders, the guides, the teachers.  It is possible...if you believe in it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

You Don't Have to Be A Technology Whiz But You Do Need to Be Fearless

Image from here

As we find ourselves surrounded by more and more technology in our profession as teachers, we see teachers react in strong ways.  You have the embracers, the ones that think any tech tool will enhance their teaching whether it really will or not.  You have those who are open but sceptic, who look for tools that will create deeper meanings and not just be another flashy gadget.  You have the hesitaters, the ones that will not request but will use the tool when they get it.  You have the hand-holders, those who stare at something and do not use it until someone else walks them through the entire process, multiple times.  Then you have the skeptics, the ones that do not think any tech will enrichen their teaching because they don't believe in gadgets.  Finally you have the resisters, those who resist pretty much any change, whether technology related or not.  All of these types of teachers have their reasons for being who they are, all of them base their perceptions on assumptions and on past experience.

So for all of them I offer some advice.
  • Don't blame the tool.  Often we hate the tool before we have even tried it, it is like a gut reaction to change in education that one develops.  "Oh, here they come again with their fancy new ideas while the old ideas work just fine."  And while there is some truth in that, it is not the tool's fault it was placed in your room, so the least one can do is explore it.  Otherwise it leads to...
  • Judge first, condemn early.  How many teachers have gotten upset over new initiatives or things being introduced before they have even tried it?  Sometimes it is easier to get upset rather than just wait and see; many words have been eaten this way.
  • You don't have to love it but do try it.  I don't love every piece of tech in my room (SmartBoard I am thinking of you) but I do use it.  After all it is there so I might as well.  I may just prefer to teach in other ways and use different tools.
  • Mess with it.  Too many times teachers are afraid to even turn something on, let alone push several buttons.  This approach can no longer be accepted.  We should be guided by many of our students' approach to tech; turn it on and mess with it.  You never know what you can discover on your own.
  • Give it more than one try.  Even with my SmartBoard I continue to explore it, hoping I will have that aha moment where I embrace it.  It hasn't happened yet, but I will not give up on it.  It is there to stay and so am I.
  • Ask questions, but don't gripe.  Yes, satisfaction can be reached through commiseration over the latest tool but will that really push us any further toward figuring it out?  Start a conversation, reach out to others, but leave it productive.  You will feel better when you walk away.
  • Get help.  Sometimes teachers are too proud to ask others for help but not me.  I ask my students to help me figure stuff out, I ask other teachers whether globally or in my school.  Somebody else is bound to have run into the same problem at some point so why not solve it together?  Team approach works best with technology.
  • Be fearless.  Technology is not the master of us and it never was intended to be, and yet, how many teachers are deathly afraid of it all?  Yes, you may break something but so what?  At least you attempted to use it.  Again look to our students for how we should embrace technology; try it, use it, make it work for you.  
Being a 21th century teacher means we have to equip our students with the know-how of technology, there simply is no excuse to not fulfill our job.  Our students learn from us, even the way we react to change, so think of your approach as the newest thing is shown to you.  Will you model how to be fearless?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I Know Worksheets are Bad and Yet I Assigned One

There they lie; staring at me with their guilty weight of uselessness, reminding me how I made another mistake.  I thought I had them beat, that I had conquered the urge to assign them, and yet I slipped and now that pile of 32 math worksheets reminds me of why I gave up on them in the first place. I don't know why I thought they would be a good idea, why I found them necessary that morning, but I did and now I have to come to term with what that means for me and for my students.  I know my good intentions of practice is hidden in there somewhere but I forgot to listen to my common sense, to look at my past mistakes, to think of the students.

We reach for worksheets when we want to make sure that students get something, when we want to have them practice, to secure a skill.  And yet who assigns worksheets with just a few problems?  After all, you want a lot of problems to make sure they really get it, that they will never forget.  So why didn't I just assign them 5 problems to show me they knew, why the need for a double-sided sheet with 32 problems on it?  The time I must have robbed from my students outside life haunts me.

So I take my pride and put it aside and I realize I made a mistake.  Tomorrow I am going to have to tell the kids that, own it, and apologize.  It shows that i am still learning, that I make bad decisions too, I am nowhere near perfect as a teacher.  And I learn, I learn from my mistakes, from my good intentions gone bad.  I learn from the feedback of the students and I admit when I mess up.  That's what makes us better teachers.  That's what builds better classrooms.  Humility, humanity, and reflection.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In Which I Reveal My Biggest Project Yet

I have a hard time keeping secrets (because I get so excited) and did let this one slip to a couple of people but we are finally ready to reveal my biggest project to date.  Brandon and I are thrilled, astounded, and utterly in awe that we are expecting twins this summer.  For those who know, infertility has been a long journey for us and we have long considered Thea to be our miracle baby.  Thus the idea of two siblings for her is enough to make me cry with joy (and yes, there has been a lot of crying - double the hormones...).

So while my dedication to changing the world of education remains the same, my pace may slow down a bit.  After all, I can't remember where I put the milk anymore let alone try to stay awake past 9 PM.  So bear with me these next few months of life-changing adventure and thank you all for all of the wonderful thoughts you have sent our way.  It worked!
The nurse actually said, "Ummm, I have a surprise for you..." and then showed us this.  She sure did - two beating hearts.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Yes They Grew But Can I Take Credit For It?

We are in the midst of testing season at my school.  The students are doing MAP tests, as well as their writing assessments and we gather to discuss the results, to think of strategies.  To rank, to sort, to file.  To highlight, to shine a light, and to discuss what is working and what isn't.  We pat some teachers on the back - look at that growth, and we wonder what else we can do.  We wonder if merit pay is on the horizon and how we will be ranked, filed, and sorted.  That will be based on these test results on those students gains or losses and yet, can we really take credit for the gains that our students may have made?  Can those test results really be accredited to the teacher?

I often wonder how much growth my students do on their own?  How their brain creates new connections, new ideas, and new strategies for conquering the learning we do?  How much of that growth can be attributed to their parents or home environment rather than the school?  How many of those new connections can really be chalked up to their natural development as a growing child who all of a sudden gets it more?  Or even how much of their growth should be attributed to their first teachers, perhaps in daycare, pre-school or kindergarten?  Those teachers set the foundation, taught those students that school was safe and an environment they could continue their learning in.  Can I take credit for any of the growth shown a piece of paper?  I don't know.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Dreams Reminds Us Of

Last night I lost control of my class.  It was a dream, of course, it being Sunday today, but I have had this dream before.  The students are older - nothing likethose  older students to be disrespectful.  The classroom is crowded - poor teaching conditions.  The task is simple and yet they don't understand.  They talk amongst themselves.  They get up and move around to talk.  They are too busy, too bored, to listen to me.

So I raise my voice and I yell at them.  Except in this dream I always start to lose my voice thus leaving me  feeling powerless.  The students proceed with their misbehavior.

They rush into the task I have created, they do it wrong.  I signal for their attention by yelling but I cannot yell over the crowd.  They ignore me and we do not get through what we need to.

They start to answer my questions but they are doing it all wrong and the frustration increases until finally the bell rings; class dismissed. the students are upset, I am ready to quit teaching, and my heart is pounding.

The first time I had this dream I thought it was a reflection of me and it was; how I used to be.  How I used to control my classroom.  Yet this dream is nothing like my now classroom.  The students are the perfect age for me, they are moving around because they learn better that way.  They pay attention when they need to and I barely ever raise my voice.  Instead I wait until I get their attention and then provide them with the task.  But the biggest difference; the task itself.  In the dream the task is meaningless, not tied into anything, and totally controlled by me.  In reality our tasks are building blocks, shaped by the students and with a bigger purpose.

So I wake from  my nightmare shook up but aware that i have changed my reality.  That I no longer thrive on controlling my students but relish the freedom they have in my room.  Relish the community we have built.  relish the learning happening.  My brain may be playing tricks on me but it does serve a reminder of why I changed my classroom philosophy; I did it for the students.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Won't You Be Happy With Me?

Whip cream, a quiet classroom, students reading, my daughter crashed in the car, Amos Lee...all things that have made me happy in the last 13 days.  How do I know this?  I have been documenting all of these small moments on my new blog The Happy Streak.  This is not a blog to write on but one used for personal reflection through cell phone pictures.  By then posting pictures of all of those small, usually insignificant and quickly forgotten moments of happiness, I am making myself a happier person overall.

Had you asked me on January 1st whether I had ever gone 13 days in a row being happy every single day, I would have said probably not, after all, being a teacher, a mother, a partner, a friend, a daughter all causes stress.  And yet here I am, 13 days into my happy streak and every single day I have indeed been happy.  Every day I have found smile inducing, grin bearing moments that have taken over the mood of the whole day.

This new adventure lets me record those small moments that bring the smiles.  Seeing my husband come home from work, a beautiful sunset, needing sunglasses in January, even the first snowstorm - all part of my happy streak.  By doing something as simple as taking a picture of that moment they take over my life and become the focus.  I catch myself all day now finding happy streak moments, wanting to record them, smiling about them.  I am so lucky, I have such a wonderful life, I am glad I finally realized this.  So won't you be happy with me?  How will you realize your happy moments?  When will you begin your very own happy streak?


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I Don't Want to Be Superwoman

We worry about whether we are enough.  Whether we plan enough, whether we know enough, do we grow enough or are we outdated?  We worry about whether we are reaching them, teaching them, and always making them feel like they can do it, like they matter, like they belong.  We worry because that is what teachers do.  Did we do enough? Did we listen enough?  Did we let them speak, find their voice, share their passion?  Did we uncover their talents and boost their weaknesses?  How will they remember school?  How will they remember us?  Will it matter all of the tears, the time, the trouble we went through so that they knew they were important?

I know I am not superwoman, and nor would I ever want to be.  Superwoman isn't human, she is too busy to sit down and listen to a story or see a lightbulb moment.  Superwoman has to save the world and my shoulders cannot carry that.  So I would rather be human, be me, be here in this classroom, at this time, working with these students.  Being there for them, catching the moments, guiding and stepping back.  Letting them fail and learning with them.  I would rather be me, thankful for this time, for this moment, for these challenges that I know I can carry.  Superwoman cannot invest, but I can, and I do, every day, every moment, even after they are gone.  They are my children and I grow with them.  That is what teachers do. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Teachers Do More Than Teach - Why Technology Can Never Replace Them

I hate that technology and education seem to be at odds with each other as presented in some media.  This "either or" mentality is, in my opinion, detrimental to the future of education.  We should embrace technology when it serves its purpose, but not treat as a replacement for teachers.  Computerized tests may be better at accurately assessing which reading skills my student needs to focus on, but a computerized test will not know why that student has not mastered that skill.  It can dictate a learning program fit to fix that gap, or to propel them forward, but hitting rewind and watching it over and over will not always guarantee that a student masters a concept.   So when we let videos be the only teaching tool for a child, or a computer program, then we stop figuring out why that child is not understanding. We lose that human connection that teachers provide.

We need the human connection for that, we need some form of a teacher to sit down and figure out what is happening in that child's mind.  To figure out how we keep them engaged and interested.  How we keep them invested.  A computer program will always analyze but forget about the human aspect.  It will assess the problem from a deficit standpoint whereas lack of understanding may be as easy as lack of vocabulary or lack of sleep.

In high school, I failed math and I repeatedly asked my teacher for help to explain the concepts to me.  She would explain it the same way she had explained it before and I finally stopped asking, it simply didn't make sense to me no matter how many times she repeated it.  Mind you this was before YouTube and vast internet communities, before Google, and Twitter.  The only other place I could turn was the library.  And yet we let tools that do nothing but repeat take so much value away from the job that we do every day as teacher.  We have let the media portray it as the saviour of education.

A frightening future to me would be one where teachers are nonexistent or serve a secondary role to the almighty computer.  Where students are greeted by machines from their own private spaces and curriculum is served through a computer program.  Lunch is served by themselves and extracurricular activities are gone by the wayside.  Drastic sure, but scary nonetheless.  Teachers don't just teach the curriculum; they process it, they analyze it knowing their students' skills.  They invest their time in it so that students will want to invest their own.  They make it meaningful, relevant, and they make it fun.  Technology can help with that, but it shouldn't replace.  Teachers do more than just teach; they shape, they mold, they model behavior, and they connect.  Often that connection is worth more than any curriculum.  Worth more than any computer program.

So the path of the future is our hands; we can show the way of how to use technology correctly as a tool to help propel us forward as practitioners or we can hide from it and lament its coming.  Technology was never meant to replace teachers, but it slowly is, it is up to us whether we let it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why Trusting Your Gut Can Be the Best Classroom Management Course You Ever Take

A year and a half ago, I went through a radical change in the way I am as a teacher. The whole foundation of what my classroom was was discarded and re-born, all on the basis of my gut instinct. It told me that to increase student motivation and increase buy-in that my method of teaching and, indeed, the whole feel of my classroom had to change.  That to see motivation increase and excitement build that the old method I was using was so far away from what I wanted that it simply should not exist anymore. So instead of dismissing what some may have viewed as a crazy whim, unsafe territory if you must, I pursued, I went there and I took the chance of implementing it into my classroom and my unsuspecting students.  
I trusted my instincts and my own desire for how my schooling should have been; projects, team-work, choices.  And now in the second year into this implementation I am the proof that it works.  I am the proof that if you believe in your students, if you believe in their ability to make great choices, to work together as teams rather than as individuals their learning will benefit.  I have students who love coming to school, and not just those 50% that love you no matter what they do.  I have kids that had given up, that believed that they could not succeed, that they were not smart enough to go to school, now tell me that they love coming, that they cannot wait to learn.  That they cannot wait to be challenged.  They may not ace every single assignment but they try and they grown.  They may not get the grades that others get but they participate, they share and they know that their voice is just as important as those who used to be the top-kids, the stars of the room.  They smile, they belong, and they own the community.  School is a place they want to come to, not somewhere they have to go.  
I cannot take credit for all of this because the students trusted me as well.  They trusted me with their dreams of school and of learning.  They trusted me with how they want to learn, how they see themselves as individuals and the paths they want to take.  That speaks a lot of the relationships we have created.  Those children trusted me enough to let me in, and to make our classroom their second home.  So my classroom is the proof that these strategies work, even if you do not know that is what you are doing.  My classroom is the proof that sometimes following your gut is more important than following any college class on classroom management. My classroom is the proof that even though your mentor does it one way, it is ok for you to do it completely different. We can change the way we do school and we can make school all about the children.  We just have to be willing to change ourselves.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Can Older Teacher Still Be Innovators?

This morning when I looked in the mirror I saw a new wrinkle.  Right there inching along on my forehead, something I swore was not there before.  I look younger than I am and yet the signs of time will cover my face slowly but certainly.  It makes me wonder when will people think that I am outdated?  That my teaching no longer is fresh or new?  When will parents request the other teacher simply because they seem to have more energy?

Teachers seem to have a shorter shelf life these days.  Like our glory days of innovation are numbered and one can only have so many new ideas, and only when in their prime years.  Yet, I see teacher much older than me generate ideas that I could never even fathom.  Come up with lessons that students talk about years later.  And yet the credit goes to the young, the fresh, the energetic but only if they look it.

Can an idea still be fresh if thought of by an older mind?  Will the general consensus continue to be that new must come from the young, the innovative, the ones that are most tapped in?  Can we change the stigma of the aging teacher and how their ideas lose merit with the years of use?  Or is this simply a product of my aging imagination that wonders whether I will be old and my ideas will lose their luster?  Are teachers judged more on their ideas than their age?  Can innovation be embraced when it comes from someone older than you or must it always be packaged as coming from the next generation?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Story of the Child that Changed Me

If I could go back and undo what I did to a child some years ago I would.  This child, who so desperately needed to feel in control of something in their life, came to me and only got more of the same.  Less control, more demands, more punishment, rather than a safe haven to feel like they was ok, like they belonged, like they were listened to.  They say you learn from your mistakes, and this is one of those kids I have learned from the most.  

    Peter wasn’t always unhappy, as evidenced by the smiling pictures I saw of him from younger years.  By the time he reached the third grade though life had gotten in the way and those smiles were far and few in between. The first time I met him, his mother dragged him into my room late for orientation and started to tell me how I would have a hard time with this one because he was lazy and didn’t care.  I don’t think any child’s shoulders have ever slumped more than that.  As I nodded through his mother’s complaints, I swore that I would be different, that Peter would start to love school again, that I would help turn this kid around.  Looking back, I see now how failed this notion was given the constraints I had placed myself under in my classroom.  I was a novice teacher, someone who still believed that I should run my classroom like those who had come before me, like people I had read about in textbooks, like they had taught me in college.  I believed that the teacher was the power, the one with all of the knowledge, and the best way for students to learn was to listen to me dole out wisdom.  Sure there would be fun, we would have parties and rewards for homework turned in and good behavior.  There would also be punishment for those who misbehaved or dared to not hand in their homework.  Grades would be motivation and threats would be the norm.  Nothing like building a relationship with a child by telling them if they don’t comply they will get an F.

    So Peter put his trust in me and at first I got him to smile, to open up a little, to have some success.  Days passed and I thought I was helping, I was fixing, I was changing this child’s life.  That is, until he didn’t do his homework.  I didn’t take the time to find out why, I didn’t ask any questions, but just told him to put his name on the board and to stay in for recess.  During recess he worked so slowly, punishing me for calling him out in front of the class, that the next day his homework was still not done.  Again, I didn’t ask any questions but just called him out, embarrassing him a little and then told him again that recess would be mine until this math was done.  Again slow and painful work meant that he barely finished.  What I didn’t know was that our power struggle had just begun and it would last the whole year.  Me in the role of enforcer, as supreme teacher that took away instead of gave, that punished rather than asked questions, that wanted more control rather than let him have some.  You see, I think all Peter wanted was control.  He wanted a space where he could come in and feel that he had a voice, that he mattered, that he belonged.  But by removing control from the classroom and even more so for him, I didn’t let him find his voice.  I didn’t let him invest himself into the classroom.  I didn’t change his mind or change his ways about school, I just let him live up to what his mother had so thoroughly predicted; that he was a no good troublemaker.

    Peter made me almost quit teaching because I saw what I had done to him.  I saw by the end of fourth grade how my decisions to run my classroom in a traditional sense had taken all of his pleasure out of learning.  I knew that summer that I had to change and one of the biggest things to go was the passion for control.  Students had to feel they belonged because they had to feel it was their room.  They had to have a genuine voice that listened to their needs and let them shape the classroom.  They had to have room to grow, to fail, and to embrace each other’s strengths through collaboration and hands on exploration.  No more teacher as the sage on the stage, but rather shine the light on the students.  Had I given Peter classroom like the one we create now, he would have had a reason to speak up, to get invested.  He would have loved the choices, how his voice mattered, and how his creative side could be explored.  He would have perhaps taken a small leadership role to show the other kid that he was worthy, to show them that he did belong on the team, he would have cared.

I run my classroom now with the mantra of students first in everything I do.  Their voice matters, their choices matter, and their opinions matter.  I do not punish and I do not reward.  Students work together when we can and always have a choice in how they do things.  They sit wherever they want and we try to eliminate homework.  If you work hard in our room you do not have to bring the work home.  They belong, they own the room, it is theirs and that is what I should have done from the moment I started teaching. I realized it isn’t about me, but about them.  I can never undo what I did to Peter and those other students before him but I can make sure I never do it again.  I have changed my teaching style because of this child and for that I am grateful, even if he will never know how much he influenced me.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Go On - Be Happy With Me

The new year smells of new opportunities, new promises, hope and change.  And yet I know that no grand sweeping resolutions will stick.  Heck I broke my first one about 30 seconds after midnight when I swore, oops.  So this year I am keeping it simple, along with my mantra to slow down I want to enjoy more, to smile more, to laugh more, so here comes the happiness streak.  (And no, I cannot take credit for that awesome title, it is from Josh Stumpenhorst.)

So every day I promise to notice my happiness moments, I promise to share them (hashtag #happystreak), and to show that the true happiness in life does come from those small fleeting moments.  So for the first day of the year I will have a luxurious breakfast with my family and I will read Thea a book.  Those will be my happiness moments today, what will yours be?  Start your happiness streak today.

So to make it more official, I will do a 365 photo blog of my happiness streak - check it out here.

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