Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thirty-eight flaming torches...

I'm sitting here, exhausted, at 8:36pm.  I know that the majority of this is temporary.  This is my first full week back to work, and it's an emotional and mentally exhausting thing, going to a new school and meeting new people.  Plus, there's my kids.  Three years old and five months old.  So yea.

Point is, I want to sleep.  I want to sleep very badly.  But I'm still sitting here, because I feel like it's important to document my recent thoughts...and attempts... and failures.  (But if there's a typo, I apologize.  Please don't tell me about it until tomorrow.) 😉

Yesterday in our county we had an amazing showing of support and encouragement for the new school year.  Our employees (almost 5,000) of them, showed up together at a stadium for a convocation, representing our schools and voicing our excitement for the school year.  Curtis Zimmerman came (bless his heart, he was in a suit in a bazillion degree weather, but that suit was sharp!) and spoke to us.  He said my new favorite quote.  And when I say new favorite, I mean I've already started making a canvas of it that is going in my office!  Anyway, he said: "Failure is an event, not a person."

I don't know that I have strictly associated failure as an event or a person, but I feel like I probably have associated more with the person than the event over time.  I hadn't really thought about it until hearing that.  And when I say associate, I don't mean blame, because I don't really think of failure with a negative connotation.  I just feel like when I've talked about things failing in years past, I've always thought more of who was doing it than what was done.  And I have a feeling that is fairly "normal"--as in many people do that same thing.

No wonder we have to work on growth mindset, amiright?  So back to why I'm writing about my failure.  I have what you call the "dreamer's disease."  I love thinking of all these new and cool ideas and ways to get things done.  And one of my big pushes has been to make a channel on Youtube.  I feel like it's so easy to create videos now that smartphones are everywhere, and this ubiquitous app can help us reach a new level of communication and involvement.  So I've been hocking this suggestion to anyone that mentions talking with parents.  But then I realized that in my dreaming I haven't worked on the logistics of a Youtube channel myself.  I'm preaching like it's the best thing since sliced bread and I haven't even tried it.  So I did.

And it was challenging.  I don't want to say hard, because it wasn't beyond my or any other novice's skill level.  But I had a vision of how I wanted it to look, and for the life of me today, I couldn't get it right.  My tester friends would see one video and not the other, and eventually I decided to take a break from it and come back later.  I did some research and played around with it for quite a while.

But I fixed it.  I did it.  It now looks just like I want it to when you first arrive to the channel.( for all your Anxious Annies out there who are dying to see it lol). I could have totally seen myself give up on this and just stop talking about it.  Stop advertising it.  But I couldn't let go of this idea and this process because I believe in the possibility of it, the potential of it SO much.  And I believe that teachers would feel so accomplished from it.  And I think students and parents would benefit from it.  And if I'm going to feel so strongly about it, I am going to make sure that I can help a teacher that wants to try it.

This whole little mini-journey I took with Youtube today reminds me of teachers who want to try something totally different in their class.  They usually see something that just captivates them and they get so excited about it and its possibility.  And then life happens.  School happens with the meetings and PLCs and paperwork, and that bulb starts to fade.  It's sad, and it happens to so many wonderful educators.  Teachers deserve to get to experiment and be excited about new things!

I felt so accomplished today with my Youtube channel.  I feel like I'm on the brink of something great, and I'm anxious to continue it.  But I had to persist past that initial hurdle... and then the few after it.  But it was completely worth it to see and feel that success.  And isn't that true for teachers with their students?  The kids deserve it.  They deserve every little bit of innovation and excitement and energy and passion that we can squeeze out each day.

So teachers, as you juggle the thirty-seven flaming torches this school year and you want to add one more, I encourage you to do it.  Because if you push past the setbacks and failures, you may discover a feeling and intensity that you never knew existed.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Question: Tell me what I think about me*

Today was a powerful day for me and other educators in my school district.  We got to be part of a great experience with Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a PIRATE.  Then we got to work with our school-based teams to talk about all the great things we had learned in the past few days of professional development.  The ideas of the last few days were so plentiful and energizing, it's hard to sort through it all, but I noticed the word "question" popped up a lot.  So I figured I would try to explain to myself (and whoever else) what is rolling through my head about it.

We in education are realizing that the way we asked questions previously (and and ask them currently) is not acceptable.  Our questions for students are not appropriate for the outcomes we are seeking.  We realized this when our curriculum standards changed.  Our kids stopped meeting academic goals when the goals became more complex.  Our old questions were not challenging enough, not good enough.  So we are now working on improving this facet of our practice by changing our questioning during instruction.  We are trying to show kids how to problem-solve a bit more with the content, and we are giving them questions to frame processes and provide end goals.  We are also trying to teach students how to question effectively, because, if we are honest, it's not an easily acquired skill for everyone, but it is one that is absolutely imperative for life.  So we press on, seemingly urgently, to make things more rigorous and get those questions flowing.

And then I think about the types of self-questioning and self-monitoring we expect our students to be responsible for.  We require a lot of forethought of students when they turn in assignments.  Some teachers still take off points for what are deemed careless errors or for late assignments.  We assume students are capable of long range planning for assignments just because we tell them far enough in advance about them.  We often expect students to independently go through editing and reviewing processes that sometimes aren't even taught consistently through the years.  Children in our classes have heaps of requirements on them, and if they don't come through we look to question what's wrong with them.

And this is where I've run into trouble.  Because over the last few years I have realized that we are not really being very fair to our students or ourselves.  We expect them to do things that if we are honest we aren't sure we still do correctly.  And they suffer consequences from these requirements that we as their teachers don't even face.  I mean, even when I was in graduate school my professors didn't take points off for late assignments and I was usually given guides with due dates to help me budget my time.

So yes, unreasonable requirements without guidance isn't cool.  But the other thing that isn't cool in my opinion goes back to the question thing.  I know I have mentioned this in a previous post to an extent, so I apologize if there is any redundancy.  But with all the questions we want our students to ask themselves while they learn, there's an incredibly surprising lack of questions we ask ourselves to model that behavior for them.  Before or after we deliver instruction, how often are we asking ourselves about our methods?  Our goals?  Whether our methods met our goals?  Have we even established goals for ourselves?  Or are we still suffering from that "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality?  It can be so frustrating to witness what seems like complacency with effort towards instruction.

But then I try to ask myself, "why do they feel that way?"  I mean I really don't know any teachers that got into this profession because they thought it would be a cushy gig.  (If they did, boy the joke's on them.) Most often it is because they like kids and want to work with kids to make them better, stronger learners, etc.  So why not serve as an example to that?  It seems like there are a lot of reasons why this could be.  Not enough time, personal life stuff, ideological differences, fear.  And though I feel like I've heard the first three as reasons often enough, I haven't heard the last one much, even though to me it has to be the number one reason.

There's a reason why some people don't step out of their comfort zone.  It's uncomfortable.  Who wants to feel that way, especially when it's at your job, your livelihood?  No one wants the risk associated with putting yourself out there.  You could fail.  You could embarrass yourself.  You could make others upset.  You could find out what your flaws are.  And one more time...anyone out there enjoy signing up for any of those feelings?  Didn't think so.  If you avoid reflection and questions, you avoid those possibilities.

But... you also avoid all the growth you could be doing and the joy you could be having with your job.  Because if you aren't stretching yourself outside of that comfort zone, there's no way you're growing.  And there's no way you can tell me that you aren't bored silly at your job.

Today Dave kind of talked about this some, about teachers acting like all the things he does is too hard for them to try.  To which I say "false."  Your job is to try things and do things when you teach, so that can't be it.  The hard part is summoning the courage or will.  And the best way to do that I think is to... ask questions!  Even if they are questions like "why am I doing things in my class this way" or "what is making me nervous about trying new things?"  Any question will require a response, and that response will prompt some kind of thought or action.  Anything is better than nothing.  If we want our students to do it, we have to be willing to do it too.  There's no other way for them to learn.

A very important (even wildly so) goal for me this year is to help people step outside of their comfort zone and get acquainted with the area.  It's so nice out there, and they are missing out on the fun.  Today I saw Dave get people excited in a way that I never though they would be.  And that more than anything thrilled me.  Every time a teacher goes out on a limb to reflect on their craft, only good things can happen.

*Hopefully you totally see my Destiny's Child reference #independentwomen #90sor00s

Sunday, August 6, 2017

To my comrades...

    Another academic year is right around the corner.  Some of us are starting this week, some next, the following, and so on.  But we all know it's coming.  You may be dreading the end of your family time, rest time, vacation time, or you may be anxiously awaiting this next year because of the myriad of ideas that you are ready to implement in your classroom.

   I'm pretty excited, probably mostly due to my new role.  But then again, I'm usually pretty enthusiastic about returning to a new school year.  I normally have thought of something (or some things) the year before or during the summer that I want to try, so I'm ready to get to it.  I'm a bit of a dreamer.  I think of these wonderful ideas about how to really get students thinking and participating and how to establish a rapport with them as quickly as possible to get some real productivity going.  Some of the ideas are unconventional compared to the norm, but it usually doesn't bother me.  With the population I've worked, I've thought outside of the box for a long time.  I used to come back with these ideas, and then hit an unseen brick wall where my intentions take a pretty big hit.  This formidable foe to my creativity is fear.  Now I don't mean some kind of sudden, crippling feeling.  It's more like the slow apprehension that builds during the school year as time passes on, and you fall behind in your lesson plans, or aren't on pace with your peers.  Those new ideas seem like they could be working, but not at a speedy pace.  You start to get nervous when work conversations and PLC discussions come around to what you're doing, and then you start to weigh the importance of your new practices compared to the content you have to cover for the *gasp* end of year test.  And when it comes down to it, you sometimes give them up, or loosen up on the fidelity of their practice.  If this has happened to you, read on, because this post is for you.

    Now obviously we can't change the system in which we teach.  We can't help that we are held to standardized tests (not getting into that on this post).  It seems fairly natural that when you have a built-in end goal of your students showing proficiency on a test, that it ends up feeling like priority number one.  And so when data starts rolling in, you start comparing numbers and the reluctant sense of urgency gets stronger.  And it doesn't help that so many people are relying on those test scores, does it?  Parents, administration, district leaders, legislators, the list goes on and on, and it's hard to fault them, because those test scores have been deemed the "mark" of proficiency and success.  But, (and it's a big but), they aren't in your room every day.  You are the teacher in the room.  You are with your students every day for a year.  You are the one who sees their strengths and weaknesses.  You are the one who sees the big picture and knows what they really need to know in order to be productive, knowledgeable citizens and respectable people.  Because others aren't there, or have other priorities they have to keep in mind, there are some things that you don't hear often enough.  So I'm going to make sure you hear/read them today.

     First of all, thank you for wanting to know your kids so well and wanting to do what is best for them.  Thank you for staying in a field where you are not always respected and valued enough, because you see the importance of our next generations' knowledge and success.  You are appreciated more than anyone is ever going to say, and you'll see that appreciation in notes and conversations from students, parents, and colleagues.

    Secondly, the test is only one assessment for one day of yours and the students' lives.  When it's done, it's over.  I know you know this, but I want to tell you that one day of testing is not going to override or change the skillsets you have developed in your students over the year.  You've made a massive change in them that one test score (even if it's awful) can't erase.

    And finally, as you are preparing and *hopefully* getting excited about the coming year and your new ideas for your class, let me tell you this, and it's really important: it's okay.  It is okay if you decide that working on perseverance is more important than one small piece of a huge curriculum.  It's okay if you teach math, but realize that your kids can't read and it's making it hard for them, so you work on that too.  It's okay if you feel like making experiences for the kids to learn is more important than chapters in a textbook or slides on a presentation.  It is okay for you to think of the whole student instead of just the small piece of that student that enters your room daily.

We often feel like we don't have enough time to help the students who came to us with gaps in their knowledge because we have too much to teach them.  We get so frustrated that they don't have the prerequisite skills they need, and we stew in that throughout the year.  But it's okay to refuse to do that.  Why not work on filling those gaps, especially if they can't move forward without them?  It's okay to say that you are not going to let a student pass through your class for a year without helping them catch up.

     That's it.  I don't think we are ever told enough that it's okay to change priorities and teach our kids what they need to know for the future.  But I'm telling you, it absolutely is.  Not only is it okay, it's imperative.  You have no idea where your students will go after they have you.  But you can help make sure they are ready for wherever they end up.  

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Making it through the gauntlet

I've been doing a lot of professional reading this summer in anticipation of my new role as a Teaching and Learning Coach.  I've got a three-year-old and a four-month-old, so in between playing and napping, I poured over texts by Joy Kirr, George Couros, and Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.  I love the direction in which education is going, but I can and will admit that I understand why the struggle for change and growth has been so real for us.

We all came to education with a certain idea of how education should look.  And that look was pretty much based on what we experienced as kids.  In fact, in the midst of this great educational transition, one of the largest points of controversy is with those who feel that "if it worked for us, why change it?"  I am so routinely frustrated by this line of reasoning, but not because of the frequency of its utterance.  My frustration lies in the idea that, if we really thought about it, the way we were educated didn't "work" for us.

I was an advanced student, and I genuinely enjoyed school, even during those socially awkward years like middle school.  When I was small I played learning games and watched educational videos on repeat.  I've always thought that I was one of those kids who just liked learning.  It wasn't until later (as in like this year) that I realized that I didn't enjoy learning; I enjoyed compliance.  In fact I relied on it and became anxious at the thought of not succeeding with compliance.

I've seen it in a couple places lately, the idea that we as children start out wanting to learn, but by the time we leave elementary, school becomes less and less appealing, until when we finally graduate and refer to schools as the "jails" we are dying to break out of.  And the big question is "what happened to cause this?"  The simple answer is that the traditional way of education "happened."  Being directed to read specific books that are completely uninteresting, to write reports and essays that always felt forced and for no authentic audience, and to memorize facts and processes with no real applicational understanding.  Sometimes topics would come up that interested us, so we gave a little bit more to them and potentially learned about new or interesting concepts as a result.  By and large though, we learned how to comply with the system, the gauntlet of education.

And that's where the frustration comes back in.  Those of us that persisted and continued to comply through the years did "well."  We finished school with good enough grades, and went on to either continue education or get a job that helps us feel successful.  But what could we have done?  If we weren't doing things because of compliance, but because we wanted to, how much further could we have gone?  And what about those people who didn't see compliance in school as important?  What of them?  They were usually deemed "lazy" or just "not that smart."  And once the system made that judgement, that was all she wrote.  Their course was set.

You know the type of classmates I'm talking about right?  I'm sure you had some; I know I did.  Kids who, when you spoke to them about their true interests or just about life, you saw brilliantly intellectual people.  But the system didn't foster their flame, so it died at the spark.  Sometimes they can get it back, and sometimes not.  But they should never have lost that flicker in the first place.  It was taken from them, really.

I'm not at all absolving myself from blame.  I spent the first several years of my teaching career doing the same things that I thought were what we were supposed to be doing.  Its only in hindsight that I see that I was perpetuating the problem.  With every assignment that isn't authentic or interesting, we are chipping away at whatever level of engagement a student can have with their own education.  Even though we don't like to admit it, it happened to us and continues still to our kids.  And it's something that has to change.  Just because we "made it" through, it doesn't make our current education system acceptable.

As I've gotten more involved in twitter and professional communities in education, I see more and more people who are in the same mindframe as me.  We know it's not okay and we are trying to fix it.  So I'm going to keep trying, and as these wonderful authors have suggested, I'm going to write about it.  If a lot of people read it and find it beneficial, awesome.  If not, that's okay too.  It's as much for me as for anyone else.  If we keep it all to ourselves, then what progress are we really making anyway?