Learning Through Teaching

We are always asking our learners, “What did you learn? ” In fact, the best teachers continually question learners throughout their learning. The process means more than the product and we have to nudge our learners along the way.

Recently, I led my Littles (7-year-olds) through the design cycle as detailed by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer in their book LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student

The project centered around a national competition wherein learners needed to use recycled milk cartons to create an invention. It sounds simple, but my fascination with Juliani and Spencer’s book provoked me to follow through with fidelity and really let my Littles go through the process without any objections, interjections, decisions, ideas (you get the picture) from me.

As I journeyed with my learners? I started to recognize what I was learning. Thus, this soliloquy is really more about what my children taught me through the process–instead of what they learned. (However, they learned a lot, too! AND won $1000 for their invention!)

(The Little General. 1, 120 milk cartons and a whole lotta love!)

Voices of my Littles….

“I learned that you always need to be willing to change the design even when you think you’re doing what you want.”

“It might be better with changes or what you’re doing doesn’t really work so you need to change it.”

“I learned that you need to do a little bit of the building and then take a step back and see if what you’ve done looks like you want it to, or else it might be too late.”

“Sometimes when you work with people, you need to listen and not just talk because they might have good ideas.”

Reading these written reflections, it was evident that the lengthy process of the design cycle paid off in both cognitive and affective ways. But what about me? What did I learn as the teacher–the facilitator?

I wish I had the very first text I sent my best teacher friend about this project. I think it said something like, “What was I thinking? There is crap everywhere in my classroom. Their ideas are endless. Their drawings are unintelligible. I don’t know if they can do this. I don’t know if I can do this.” (I ate my words tenfold and she is still reminding me!)

I also thought I didn’t want to invest ALL this learning time and have nothing at the end of it. I mean, I get process learning–and that the product is not the purpose. But, if you’re going to commit to weeks of learning, you want something at the end of it. Right?

So. Here’s what I learned and I hope each of us can apply some of these principles to our own repertoire when we give the process learning to our learners.

  1. Kids can do WAY more than we think. We know this intuitively, but we don’t allow them to do it. We cannot steal the experience from our learners. (My Littles used glue guns and spray paint! The comments I absorbed from my colleagues gave me a chance to say, “Why would I do this for them if they can do it themselves?”)
  2. The process still needs planning. Too often we dabble with process tasks. We pose an issue, a challenge—and we say go for it. If we don’t have a plan, a direction we want to go, within the parameters of student choice, the process will stall. It’s a fine line between planning the process and dictating the steps–but seeing the end at the beginning and creating a roadmap (with obvious forks in the road and rest stops!) is helpful.
  3. Kids need TIME to play and think and explore. In other words, we rush learning. We demand answers. We have to be impeccable with our wait time. The next time you pose a question, time yourself for one minute–without accepting a response or offering a follow-up question. It’s HARD. Why? Because we feel we do not have enough time ourselves to teach “everything we need to teach.” It’s one of those things that pays off tenfold if we give our learners the time they need, the process is evident and typically promotes a worthy project.
  4. Questioning leads learners to greater thinking and true ownership. I had parents come in to help with engineering for this project. Oddly enough, three parents came for one morning. Only. (I think they realized the children had it under control!) However, during the visit, one parent was unhappy with the engineered project one group was working on. (It was the steam engine part of a locomotive.) She lamented to me, “I think they need to do this differently. There is a much easier way.” I asked her to explain her thinking to me. She did and then asked, “What are the rules for this contest?” I said, “Well. I assume it should be kid created. But my rule is it WILL be entirely kid created.” She was frustrated, so I joined the group. I simply said, “Ah. I see what you’re trying to do here. Is there a way you could create this same idea–faster?” Voila! They all suggested various things and combined a couple of the suggestions, adjusted the design–independently–all with a simple question. Yep. It would have been easier to say, “Hey guys, why don’t you use one piece of cardboard instead of these strips.” But there is no learning in that. (For anyone!)
  5. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. We must stress to learners that the process does not need to be perfect. In fact, if it’s perfect, there’s no learning in the process. We have to revise. We have to evaluate. We have to let go of the fear of doing it wrong. We have to grow comfortable with the discomfort of not being perfect. How do we do this with kids? We get them to move on. We get them to sketch ideas instead of draw with keen detail, especially on a brainstorm draft. We teach them how to think flexibly. We show them Piccaso! We don’t expect perfection. We stress process over product. We also share our own mistakes.
  6. Learning is MESSY. I don’t mean just the “stuff.” But that’s messy, too. The thinking. The doing. It’s not always consistent. It’s not always even coherent (especially with 7-year-olds). But you have to see the opportunity in the mess. And, not just the opportunity to clean it up, but the opportunity to get messier. To dissect. To investigate. To dive deeper. Neat and tidy learning breeds compliance. We need to create frameworks for messy learning. (Stuff, included!)
  7. Celebrate along the way. When we are stressing process, we have to stop and smell the roses along the way. Celebrate! Maybe it’s group dynamics, or a new idea, or someone answering his or her own question. (That’s my favorite celebration. A learner comes up and asks a round about lengthy, take a breath and think first, question..and you just smile blankly until he has no choice but to decide for himself.) Cheer!

So you see, reflecting on what we are learning in the process of teaching–is transformative. You can take those little nuggets of inspiration and translate them across everything you do with your learners.

Back to my initial text to my colleague.

I proved myself wrong. Sometimes we just need to keep moving forward with an idea. We need to practice what we preach to our learners in how we shape their learning for them.

Idle Chatter is Something to Talk About!

There’s much being said about student voice.

Dr. Russ Quaglia invests heavily in the research about this exact topic. His book, Student Voice: The Instrument of Change is really a mandate necessary for positive school reform. However, to really allow student voice to change our schools and change the individual experiences of our children? We have to give that voice a starting place. We have to LISTEN.

Teachers typically aren’t very good listeners. We find ourselves clipping conversations short. Especially conversations that “have nothing to do with the curriculum.” (Consider this: I think every conversation in the classroom, even ones teachers perceive as unproductive, are nurturing our children to sharing a powerful possibility.)

Idle chatter. There’s something to it.

Recently, this is a conversation that unfolded in my classroom. It was unprompted–meaning I didn’t ask a question, and the task my learners were completing–had nothing to do with the transcript you’re going to read below.

“My mom is not voting for Trump.”

(I hear this and have that split second thought that many teachers have: Wait. What? Do I let this flow–or do I shush it.) 

Well my brother wants Trump to win.”

“If Hillary wins, she will be the first girl president.”

“What? (pointing dramatically) What did you just say? You said SHE will be a president?”

“Yeah. There has never been a girl president. Ever.”

“I read a book Grace for president. Grace is a girl.”

“Well that’s a book. It’s not real. This is for real. If Hillary wins she will be the first girl president.”

“I don’t think that’s fair. Why do boys always win?”

“Because most people like voting for boys more than girls.”

“Just because they are boys.”

“Boys aren’t better just because they are boys.”

“I’m a boy and I think it’s not fair that girls don’t get picked like boys get picked.”

“Yeh,  boys lie too.”

“Guys. You know what Hillary did? She got in trouble with the police and when they were getting mad at her. She ran from the police.”

“I still don’t think it’s fair that girls don’t get voted for.”

“I have dance class on Saturday.”

Seriously. That was the entire conversation.

There were multiple opportunities for me to interject. To share my knowledge or (worse) my opinion. Chances to question. However, during their little, but mighty social and ethical discussion?

It was better for me to just listen.

Children’s conversations–even older children’s conversations–will run a natural course if you let it.

So what do teachers gain from letting chat happen?

We learn to listen. We can stand back as if we are a fly on the wall and simply listen. We can listen with our eyes and our hearts–not just our ears and empathize with the issues and our ideas our learners carry with them.

Allowing children to talk forces teachers to be reflectively relevant. If our learners are talking about it? You better believe it’s important to them. We need to reflect on the personal and social conversations occurring in the classroom and how we can connect these ideas to deeper learning.

When teachers stop talking and merely listen to children you are presented with a more authentic, unbiased dialogue. You are allowing children to think critically.  They evaluate, judge, establish criteria, and draw conclusions. They empathize, they disagree, they are exposed to other points of view.

Children become better listeners if you allow them to be talkers. They take turns. They wait to be heard. In fact, children are using social norms without them ever being taught explicitly.

Letting chat happen creates a safe environment for our children to be expressive. It provokes natural debate, and challenges. It prompts children to advocate for their beliefs. Children know a lot more about the world than we most people think they do. What begins as seemingly idle conversation can be the root of a powerful idea that leads to an immeasurable learning experience.

The next time the chatter begins in your classroom, refrain from halting the “off topic”discourse. Listen with purpose. Use your learners’ voices to establish relevancy for their learning. Marvel at the power behind little and young voices.

 

 

 

 

A Pebble in Your Shoe

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Have you ever had a pebble in your shoe?

You know that feeling, right? Annoying. Troublesome. Yet, we are too impatient to take our shoe off and remove the crippling pebble.

Instead, we move our foot around awkwardly (sometimes to a grand balancing act!) We try to place that pebble between our toes—or in that slim space between the side of our foot and the side of our shoe.

And, just when we think we have won over the pebble—OUCH—that once smooth annoyance becomes a sharp pain on the most impossible part of our foot and we have no choice but to sit down, remove the shoe and remove the pebble.

I feel like some of the conversations we should be having about education are pebbles in our shoes. We simply (awkwardly) move them around so it feels better—until it doesn’t.

My pebble in my shoe (one of many, I might add) is courageous conversations. When I see something that goes against my educational or even my humanistic philosophy. I admit. Sometimes it feels like a boulder, not a pebble. But I tend to roll them around and pretend it’s not there–even when I can feel it.

Recently? I watched a teacher sit her entire class down outside during recess for a timed 8 minute “watch the other children play while you sit and think about…” (My kiddoes were the only other children playing.)

I know for a fact thinking about … (insert whatever they were told to think about) was the furthest thing from their little minds.

And y’all.

I felt BAD.

The pebble became a huge concrete slab being dropped on my big toe.

I wanted to walk over and say, “Go play. Go run. Be a kid” regardless of the fallout. I wanted to rescue these little people from something I so vehemently oppose.

But I couldn’t. And I didn’t. (But I should have and realistically I could have.)

So the pebble remained. And for a few days it rolled over my toes. Struck my heel. Irritated my steps.

I asked myself, realizing that there are SO many pebbles in our shoes when it comes to education, how do we subtly remove a pebble from our shoe like the conversation that needs to be had with this teacher?

For me, it starts with framing the issue. I have to ask myself is this affecting kids? Some would argue (most, in fact) that if it’s not bothering MY job, MY tasks, MY responsibilities—why do I get worked up about it, why do I make it my business?

Simple. Kids are OUR kids. My kids. Your kids. OUR KIDS. 

So. If something happens that affects kids, our kids, I have no choice but to act. These are the things for me, no matter the pebble that I am polishing.

First? Take a deep breath. It’s hard. Especially in a role such as mine. I am not the administrator. I am not the ultimate authority. I am “one of us” and take my role as teacher to be one of camaraderie and support and positivity.

Second? Write it down. I do not send the conversation in an e-mail. But for me? If I write it down, I tend to temper the emotion. I can process through what I am going to say. Even if it doesn’t go exactly like the blueprint, writing it down allows me to clarify what I want to say.

Third? Be empathetic. I tend to be an empathetic person. It goes out the window when I witness something that distresses me. But in order to have these conversations, we have to be empathetic. We have to come from a place of love and understanding (even when we are thinking what in the world is going on?!?!)

Ninety-nine percent of the time (hopefully) I think teachers (all of us) are well-meaning. I don’t think we are doing anything with poor intentions. I think, instead, we don’t even know the message we are sending out because we are not reflective. It’s not even that we are ill-equipped. We simply don’t take ourselves out of a situation and ask, “What is the perception here? How is this impacting kids beyond this eight minutes? Why is this even an issue for me? What can I do differently?”

You see. Some people don’t have pebbles in their shoes. So we have to be empathetic to those that simply don’t know the feeling.

My conversation went a little like this:

“Hey, have you ever had a pebble in your shoe? You know…no one put it there on purpose. It just sort of appears?”

“Yeh. It’s so annoying.”

“Well. I get them too and sometimes I bring them on myself, but sometimes they just appear on their own. I noticed last week your entire class was sitting out for recess.”

“Oh yeh. Well let me tell you what they were doing…”

“Before you tell me, I want you to know that I’m only talking to you as a friend. I know kids can get annoying at times. They are kids after all. But I think you have such talents as a teacher and it would make me really sad for you if people’s impression of you was what I saw on the playground. Even more importantly? I want your kids to love you and see all of the joy and passion you have for teaching. I am certain they did something that frustrated you. But can I suggest that the next time you feel inclined to sit every last child out for recess—instead—you write it down on a pebble, at least in your head…and figure out a different way to handle it? I am happy to brainstorm with you—but I really believe if you let kids play—it will come back in positive heaps to you!”

And I gave her a pebble.

I haven’t been back outside with this teacher to see if the pebble analogy had the magic I wanted it to have. But the circumstance allowed me to grow a little bit. Certainly the more we approach things with clarity of thought, empathy, a deep breath and a mindset of “for the kids” these pebbles get easier to remove.

I’ve started keeping real pebbles—with things written on them–on my desk. Sometimes it’s a child’s name—to remind me to try something new or have more patience. Sometimes it’s some action or “policy” that I want to see change or other times it’s an idea that just needs some time to ruminate. And sometimes, it’s something that nags at me to complete (blog entries—grants—lesson plans.)

I haven’t quite solved how to remove all the pebbles in my shoe at one time. And sometimes the removal of them is an awkward process or just when you think you’ve gotten rid of it—it makes itself known again.

However, I feel if we look at obstacles in education whether it’s that “one” learner, that “one” parent, the policy, or even a courageous conversation, as merely a pebble, we begin to change our posture, change our stance and ultimately get rid of the pebbles to make things better for everyone.

What pebbles do you have in your shoe? Are you working to remove them or just move them around until they become more of a problem?

Say it Anyway

TELL YOUR STORY 2Dave Burgess uses the most amazing analogy in 140 Twitter Tips forEducators: Get Connected, Grow Your Professional Learning Network and Reinvigorate Your Career to implore teachers to use their voice to change education. Dave suggests that if someone collapses at a party and you know CPR, you don’t shirk back into the crowd. Instead you exclaim, “I know CPR!” And with an adrenaline rush and great pride you have the potential to save someone’s life.

What about teaching?

Think for a moment of the vast body of knowledge you have. From theory to methodology to classroom management to technology, to name a few. (I know I am barely scratching the surface with what we know!)

Teachers must be willing to proselytize what is working well—and what is not—in their classrooms, in their schools and in education as a whole.

Think about how amplifying a collective voice of educators can be and the impact those voices can have on each other and more importantly, on children.

We must value teacher voice so we can value children’s voices.

So where the teachers at? We can’t hear you! 

Tip #127 in 140 Twitter Tips for Educators: Get Connected, Grow Your Professional Learning Network and Reinvigorate Your Career is important to read and believe. It needs to be a perpetual mantra. In fact, I find myself repeating “#127” in my head and noting “#127” on ideas and thoughts and noteworthy experiences. This blog is my biggest leap of faith with sharing my voice.

You see, I am one of those teachers who thinks thought, “Surely everyone is already doing this.” Or, “No one really has time to try something else that I think is magical.” Or, “I’m sure people are sick of me sharing.”

And then I recognized this same thing in my classroom.

I asked a fairly innocuous question to my group of learners. I expected and hoped everyone would share a response. It was during a morning meeting and I asked, “If you could change one thing about the way you learn, what would it be?” As children started answering one by one, it seemed that there was a growing consensus of a few similar ideas.

And then one of my learners said, “I was going to say the same thing he said.”

This happens often, right? Learners don’t realize the power of their own stories. Their own ideas. Their own voice. Instead of letting this little one escape, I responded:

“Say it anyway.”

And she did. Her words and expressions were not exactly the same while the idea was.

And, get this. The student that shared the original idea responded, “Yeh. That’s what I mean but she said it better.”

Don’t we have the same experiences as teachers? I do.

I sit in meetings and collaborative discussions and often I hear my ideas said in a different way. Maybe it’s more elaborative, or concise. Maybe it is more global. More personal. Maybe it’s what didn’t work for something that did work for me. Or vice versa maybe it is something that worked that I struggle with.

So you see. Our voices are not always so different. But we have them. That’s why #127 is so crucial. We have to tell our story.  We have to share our personal experiences. We have to tell our shared experiences. Even if we don’t think we have anything to tell. We have to tell it anyway.

Most of the time, our singular voice represents so many.

Sharing our voice, “telling it anyway,” doesn’t have to be complicated.

It merely has to be willing and intentional.

So how willing are you?

For those of you who are in the same frame of mind I was. Here are a few things to consider when you don’t feel that your story matters:

Being a reflective educator is paramount to your growth and it helps others evolve, too.

We all need people in our profession to help keep us real and keep us motivated.

Don’t share your story thinking you’re going to be the next New York Times best-selling author. Instead, share your story thinking, I matter. You matter. We matter.

Sharing your story makes you vulnerable. Being vulnerable establishes trust. Trust breeds strong relationships.

Telling your story makes you a better listener. A better observer. You have to be more aware of your world to tell your story.

You never know how your story will impact new teachers, more tenured teachers, people that want to be teachers and educational administration and beyond.

You have the amazing ability to impact others by simply sharing.

Erin Morgenstern says what I believe all teachers should believe in with regard to the individual stories we hold:

 “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” ~ The Night Circus

Share. Be willing. Be intentional. 

If you don’t tell your story, who will?

What are you waiting for?

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These aren’t just well-loved running shoes. These are my first pair of running shoes. I keep them as a reminder.

How many times as educators, do we say, “I wish…”

I wish I had more time.

I wish I could teach that.

I wish I knew how to do that.

I wish I taught a different grade level.

I wish I had more resources.

I wish I could design the coolest experience for my kiddoes.

I wish I could change my room around.

I wish things were different.

My running shoes represent how, sometimes, we just have to go for it.

We just have to take that first step.

That’s what running was for me. It’s been over six years since I decided to become a runner. (Even though it’s been six years, I still use the phrase, “I’m a runner” loosely. You see, I’m so slow, some might even wonder if I am, in fact, running.)

I digress.

Do you ever think of something that might be a little offbeat? Or have you had an idea that you know is going to be met with resistance? Or is there something in your wheelhouse that you want to do but you think it is just out of reach for some reason?

That was me with running.

I clearly remember the reaction when I told my family that I wanted to be fitted for proper running shoes and was going to start running 5K races. After the alien looks ceased and the belly laughter subsided, the look on my face proved I was serious.

The very next day I was on a treadmill having my step and gait analyzed.

The question I was presented with, “Why on earth do you want to run?” is vaguely like the questions those of us in education are often faced with when we want to take an innovative leap or do something unconventional.

Don’t we have naysayers in our schools saying things like,

“That’s never going to work.”

“We don’t to things like that here.”

“Why do something new when what we’ve done has always worked?”

(The worst, right?)

But the doubting audience didn’t matter. I knew all I had to do was take my first step. Although I wasn’t confident, I knew I could take that step without help, without encouragement and without collaboration.

And it won’t matter for you either.

Ask yourself, what have you been waiting, wishing or wanting to do for your learners or for yourself, professionally?

Commit to taking that first step, whatever it may be.

The results will invigorate you, challenge you, validate you and CHANGE you. I promise.

(And, be prepared for your first step to create a movement!  How do I know this? My entire family adopted running. My own kids even ran Cross Country for their respective high schools!)

What’s holding you back?

For me? It was worry, self-consciousness, lack of knowledge, doing it alone, not knowing if I was going to stick with it (and of course the notion that I had never run a distance in my LIFE!)

Aren’t those some of the same things that hold us back from taking that leap of faith with our teaching?

We have to find the spirit to take the first step despite the things that hold us back. Whether these things are self-inflicted or part of the context in which we teach.

We have to be daring.

The first step is what allows the invisible to become visible.

So what are you waiting for?

What’s your first step going to be?  

Do You Have What it Takes?

color heartDo you have what it takes? 

There is an alarming trend in my beloved profession today. Recent research suggests that 42%  of all teachers leave the profession within their first five years. 42%. That is almost half.

There is a problem. Something is missing. I don’t think it’s the money, although you won’t get rich, teaching. I don’t think it’s the hours—goodness gracious teachers have a lot of time “off”…right? (Or at least that’s what I’m told!..and what I write about earlier in this blog! )

I think it is something else.

Sure it’s important to know the curriculum, to be relevant, to be organized. But for me? You know what that something else is? That something else is very simple. I have learned after almost 20 years in education…the most important thing that teachers must possess..is…heart.

Do you have what it takes? 

Think for a moment about the teachers who have impacted you…good…and bad. We all have had experiences that have shaped our education. I would bet that much of what you recall both good…and bad…is how those teachers made you feel.

Mrs. McDonald. Sophia Romano. Ronald Delivuk. Altos Godfrey. Kitty Neihbuhr. Lee Doebler. Ann Hamilton. Sharon Compton. Dr. MacMillan. Jack Riley. You won’t see any of these names decorating a Hollywood star. They aren’t engraved on a Pulitzer.

Mrs. McDonald introduced me to Mr. P. Mooney who taught me how to read.

Sophia Romano let me write a poem based on a song that I loved and actually bring the record in and play it for the class.

Mr. Delivuk. I was in his science class the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

Altos Godfrey taught me what it was like to develop film. To see something your eye has only seen from behind a lens—come to life.

Kitty Niehbuhr had me re-read Bridge to Terabithia as an adult and recognize that Terabithia can exist.

Lee Doebler gave me my first and only “B” and made me feel that I was the same person before the “B” as after the “B”…though oddly enough here I am some 20 years on and I’m still talking about it!

Ann Hamilton never spoke above a whisper and used to wear the funkiest scarves.

Sharon Compton let me watch a rose beetle go from larva to pupa to beetle to mealworm and was there when someone vandalized our classroom and glued our science experiment to the chalkboard. She was also there when I failed a social studies test and signed my dad’s name to it. Not well.

Jack Riley who simply encouraged me to “invent myself.”

And then it was Dr. MacMillan who saw something in me that no one else had seen and simply said to me, “Go. Teach.”

These names are the names of my teachers; a representation of the body of educators that worked tirelessly to impart knowledge, ignite thinking but mostly illustrate how important relationships are.

I don’t recall a lot of what I learned from each of them, as I’ve suggested, but I remember their hearts.

Haim Ginott, a teacher, believed the following:

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized (Ginott, 1972).

That is what is at the heart of teaching.

Do you have what it takes? 

These  principles that I am going to share with you aren’t taught in education classes. They aren’t even taught in the endless professional learning we engage in as educators. However, for me, they have become the most powerful teaching tools in my repertoire. And each year I learn how to hone them—and live them. (For those of you that are not educators? These thoughts shouldn’t be lost on you either—for these ideas are part of the affective fabric of society.)

First—concern.

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You would think this is a no-brainer. However, concern and kindness truly change the environment in the classroom and in the school. Being kind helps students feel welcomed, cared for and loved. We all wake each day with a host of worries. I don’t know your worries personally, but I know the state of the world and I can imagine that some of you sitting reading this could use a little kindness.

The second thing that is at the heart of teaching is compassion.

Teaching is a humanistic profession. We work with people. A compassionate teacher models the feeling of utmost understanding and shows others they are cared for. As a result? You build compassionate people.

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Be empathetic. In classrooms, empathy needs to be unleashed. Empathy is such an important trait to have and try to develop in ourselves and the children we teach. How often do you look with your eyes and your heart? Social learning is not happening in our homes today; therefore it must happen in our schools.  To create empathy you have to prepare the safe space, lead by example, engage in storytelling and problem solving—and ultimately reflect and act.

Be affirmative.

This is one of the hardest traits a teacher can be fluid with. We are bombarded with negativity and one hundred and one reasons to be negative. It seems most days there are more problems than solutions.  But no one likes an Eeyore. Teachers are blessed to be change agents daily. If you foster positivity, it will come back to you. There is always a silver lining in teaching—and some days it may just be that one child that you are really struggling with—is absent.

You are a creator. A maker. A designer. You are a builder. 

A great teacher bridges gaps and builds relationships. Think about the environment you create for your kids.IMG_9384

Create an environment for students that is engaging and curious. 

Build relationships with your students. Build relationships with your peers. Build relationships with your parents. And most importantly? Continue to build on your knowledge, your craft—because just when you think you’ve got it all under control?

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You’ll be reminded that you aren’t quite there yet!

Have a sense of humor. Many years ago a very dear friend used to share, “kids are fun…kids are fun…kids are fun..” and at the time, I didn’t understand that. It’s a great mantra to adopt. Kids are fun. They are typically curious and innocent and witty and silly. If you keep this perspective? Your days will be that much more meaningful. Sarcasm to some is a low form of wit—but some children thrive on sarcasm. Laugh at yourself and laugh with your students. I remember the first time I laughed uncontrollably with my children. I was reading The BFG by Roald Dahl. Ever read it? The chapter on Whizpoppers? Well. I failed to preview the book (Fatal error number one for a teacher) and got so cracked up at what I was reading that I seriously could not breathe. It was if this wave of interest and camaraderie and family washed over my class and the entire environment was changed. I try every week to share a joke with my students. My favorite? What’s brown and sticky.

A stick.

Lastly…and my favorite…ignite. You need to uncover hidden treasures, possibilities and magic…and watch the delight in your students’ eyes. Take them places they haven’t been before.

I had a student who had never seen a revolving door. We were in my precious city on a fantastic, educational, engaging field trip. And Kelsey was mesmerized by the door. After being told by the security guard that the students could NOT go in the door? We did anyway. (Much to the security guard’s frown. But come on. The child had NEVER seen a revolving door!)

Last year? It was geese. My students couldn’t believe the gaggle of geese that had landed on the field at school. I let them have 60 seconds of a wild goose chase…teachable moment? You betcha. Figurative language. When we say someone is going on a wild goose chase…you have just experienced it.

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If you teach with heart? Teaching is not about you. You won’t get that star on the walk of fame either. In fact, the only time you will feel famous is on a quick run to Walmart when you are severely underdressed and are likely picking up a six pack of beer only to turn around and see one of your students barreling toward you with his her parent behind them screaming, “LOOK! It’s my teacher…” (they honestly can’t believe a teacher is even out of the school building!)

Do you have what it takes? 

I implore you to start teaching with heart. I promise you,  if you allow yours to beat for those kiddoes in transformational ways, you honestly will not believe how their hearts will touch you, too.

So You Don’t Think You’re Creative

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Creativity.

For years scholars and academics to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and everyone in between have attempted to define creativity. What it is, what it looks like, how to chase it.

In schools, educators lament that the curricula and standards are inhibiting teachers’ ability to be creative, teach creatively and think creatively.

I argue it’s not the curricula. It’s not the standards. It’s the teachers themselves that are the roadblock.

Recently I have had the opportunity to speak with teachers about their personal beliefs and dispositions with regard to their students. I asked on a simple inventory, “How are you like your students?” and “How are you unlike your students?”

An overwhelming majority all commented on the notion that their students are more creative than they are. In fact, some of the verbiage included:

“My students think creatively. I do not.”

“They are all way more creative than I am.”

“My students do things in ways I would never think of doing because they are more creative.”

Creativity.

It’s a term that can invoke an extreme uncomfortable feeling in teachers, especially during a time where schools are pushing more innovation and more creativity. Teachers are quick to judge themselves without a true appreciation of what creativity means (or could mean!) for them.

launch-smallIf you have not read the book Launch:Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student authored by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer, it is a must read. Aside from the framework the book suggests for ensuring learners are moving through a creative and innovative design process (which is laid out so perfectly for any educator that wants to ensure creativity is pervasive in their classrooms!), these gentlemen clearly allay any fears teachers may have about not being creative.

Juliani and Spencer advocate, “There is no single creative type” and further suggest that schools rely on the term creativity to describe an artful experience. It’s true right? Don’t many educators support this notion by demeaning most creative efforts as “fluff?”

The authors of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student (the must purchase book for all the doubting creative souls!—and those of us that want creativity to be purposeful and a foray into innovation in our classrooms) assert that we all are creative and can accept that we are all creative once we understand our own individual approach to creativity.

According to Juliani and Spencer, perhaps your approach to creativity is that of an artist, a geek, an architect, an engineer, a hacker or a point guard. Or maybe you’re like me and you are a mish mosh of these approaches. Or maybe your approach is contextual depending on the desired outcome, the people you’re working with or just your general mood.

Identifying how we approach creative opportunities is the first step in creating (there’s that term again!) classrooms that are a stage rife with creative conversations, creative lessons and creative processes which all have the potential to lead to innovation.

Creativity is personal. No matter how you find yourself approaching creative tasks the approach is your own. We are originals by the nature of our being. Creativity becomes a habit. Whether you are curious or questioning or innovative or passionate, these are all tributaries to creativeness. If you practice any of these attributes they become an intentional part of your thinking and thus, your teaching.

We need to shift our perspective from asking ourselves, “Am I creative?” to “How am I creative? In what ways do I use a creative process?” It’s easy when thinking about creativity to immediately focus on our deficits instead of our strengths. But, what if the deficits, when thinking about creativity really are strengths?  For example, are you a daydreamer? In the creative realm, you might just be an intense thinker (thinking IS a creative process, right?) Do you have that quirky, obtuse sense of humor? That’s creative. You may sense that making decisions is a challenge for you. Perhaps you are open-minded (see what I did there?) Maybe you are insecure, perhaps the creative twist on that is you are sensitive, a characteristic that allows you to empathize and use your intuition to solve problems.

So really …

If we shift our perspectives on what creativity is with a broader scope that goes beyond crayons and paint and artful performances, we start to see the pattern of creativity in everything that we do. Imagine the freedom our classrooms and our school buildings (and more importantly the people within them) will experience if we each are able to harness creativity and commit to the daily expression it can provoke.

Barely Visible Line and a Pole

My son, Rory, is 15. He’s an old soul.

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He sort of has Dennis the Menace qualities. (Yes, I’m dating myself.) He is always outside. Whether it is mudpies, treehouses, cycling, helping neighbors to whatever—you name it. If I had a nickel for every time we sat down to dinner or I witnessed his grubby hands on the door frame and I had to remark, “Son, have you washed your hands?” I would be a millionaire.

Here’s the thing about Rory. He doesn’t particularly like school. I mean, it’s a means to an end for him. At 15 he is three years into his own lawn business with 25-30 clients each summer. We have struggled over school. He could be a straight A student, “But Mom…B’s are okay, too!” We have had lengthy conversations about effort as some of his “B” grades are 89s. “Son. An 89? Do you realize how close you are to an A?” “Mom. I’m cool with a B.”

And there it was. Staring me right in the face. I work daily with children (and parents) getting them to understand and accept children are more than a test grade, more than an assessment, more than one descriptor on a report card. Yet, as a parent, I wasn’t being true to that belief.

As the years have gone on with Rory, (He is a rising Junior in High School now.) I have had to bite my tongue often when I watched unnecessary projects come home. Anyone ever have to make a piece of jewelry to represent DNA? I think we spent $50 or more at Michael’s trying to make something clever, and he (nor me!) understood anything about DNA before, after or during the creation. It was frustrating for me as an educator, but even more frustrating for me as a parent as I watched this excited, embraces life kind of kid—start to lose his enthusiasm.

Then he threw a fishing rod into a pond. (Stay with me, it’s not what you think. That’s the lingo when one casts a rod into water. I am learning.)

What ensued has been a year of self-learning, self-teaching, resourcing, practicing, studying, participating and experiencing everything there is to know about bass fishing. What? BASS FISHING. No one in our family fishes. I thought the fish were named wide mouth bass. (They are large mouth bass. They are not Mason jars. There are also small mouth bass. There are also spotted bass. Come on Mom.) I had no idea where this interest came from. The back story is as simple as his best friend was given a fishing rod for his birthday and Rory tried it.

It didn’t take long for me to witness the magic unfurling. The truth that when children are excited about something, they are going to learn.

Late one afternoon as Rory was looking at a map for “the blue spaces” and convinced me to drive him to some “watering hole” that he knew was “around here somewhere…” We talked on the drive. He was telling me about depth and color and temperature of water. He was telling me about lures and how they’re made and why they work. He was informing me about fish and their movement and spawning habits. He was telling me about lakes and conservation. I was gobsmacked. I remember looking over at him and thinking, “This is it. This is what is missing in schools. This is the level we don’t get to when we teach. And if we did? We would capture every child and their learning would be exponential.”(Okay. I was also thinking, if he can learn all of this, why isn’t he making A’s. More to my point. He wasn’t interested in what was being delivered.)

How do we do that?

We have to expose children to the offbeat. We have to let them experience snippets of life that aren’t found in textbooks and curriculum. We need to build relationships and dialogue with children. We cannot speak AT them. We must allow children to bring their little lives into the classroom. Maybe it’s camping, or ballet or Japanese Saturday school. Maybe it’s baking or dolls. For our older children maybe it’s illustrating or music mixing or fashion or cars. We simply cannot let these passions smolder until they are snuffed out.

Not everything has to be innovative. Not everything has to be technological. Have you ever brought a stamp collection into your classroom? Old coins? What about a telephone? Have you ever talked about your path to teaching? Have you ever just created a space in your classroom for artifacts and articles and ideas where, simply by osmosis, even just one child might be inspired?

You must.

I digress a little bit.

I share all of this to say that my 15 year old son is competing this weekend in the Georgia State High School Bass Tournament. My kid! This 15 year old kid who cannot even keep his room clean has found a passion that is teaching him how to problem solve, think critically, be persistent, fail and try again, collaborate with others, be resourceful, study the environment, calculate math, learn how to plan and how to network (after all he doesn’t have a boat!) and so many other skills that will transfer to his life permanently. He has been surrounded by mentors that have taken a shining to him because they love bass fishing, too. It is a culture and the “old boys” are enthusiastic and eager to see the “up and comings.” Shouldn’t we be like that in our classrooms? Shouldn’t we take a shining to these young minds and hearts and mentor them to explore their world enthusiastically?

My son is a testament to allowing children to find their passion and then fanning those flames in every way possible. We owe it to our children to acknowledge their voice and choice. Schools and teachers have to be the channel to show them how to imagine the possibilities.

It started with barely visible line and a pole. What will it take for your children?IMG_5915

P.S. I have to add that not all of his teachers have snuffed out his enthusiasm for learning. Although school is a bit of a bummer for him? He did have a teacher that allowed him to write a Shakespearean sonnet about fishing. Way to go (!) fellow teacher for allowing that (obtuse) choice. He also had a teacher in his business class that allowed him to use his lawn business as the content for a business plan. We just have to be more intentional, purposeful and motivated to let kids learn through their passions.

Make Learning Bell Ringing Worthy!

bellHave you ever eaten at a restaurant? Of course you have. Whether it was a sit-down context where you are given the black napkin or the white napkin depending on your garments, or a drive through quick grab to eat in the car, take home…you get my question, and we have all experienced it.

We all eat at restaurants.

How many of you order exactly what is on the menu? No substitutions, no questions about the ingredients, no leave this off. It’s very likely that few of us order exactly what is on the menu. Even Starbucks customers tweak their drinks with milk substitutions, sugar content and temperature of the drink. (Did you even know you could order extra-hot or kid friendly temperature?)

What do we do when the order is wrong?

We send it back.

If we are ordering to go, we often don’t have the option of sending it back because we are typically a mile away when we realize the no pickle chicken sandwich actually has a pickle on it. Or when we take a swig of what we think is the refreshing coke we order only to learn it is diet coke, our face blanches, but what do we do?  What do we do then?

We complain. We mutter that we didn’t get what we asked for. But we are sort of stuck.

Do you see the parallels to classroom learning? We don’t give kiddoes a chance to ask for substitutes. We don’t give our learners the option of more or less. We obviously control those things for them. Everyone is going to get this menu item today. If you don’t like it? Or it doesn’t taste good to you? I’m sorry. It’s what is on offer.

Consider creating a context for learners in which they can ask and do ask for what they want and need in the classroom. Of course teachers will continue to frame the menu, but what if we fostered a classroom where learners could say, “I need more problem solving.” Or, “Can I not have so much literacy today, I’m full.” Or, “I’m ready for a little bit of journaling.” Or even, “I’m ready to try this since you’re not offering that—even though I don’t like it.”

What if our daily focus in our classrooms was on customer service? We certainly sometimes have little control over the menu, the standards of learning. But we do have control over the delivery, the customer service side of it. After all, the menu says chef salad, but one can always have the dressing on the side, right? Notice the pleasantries that restaurant workers exchange with you and how apologetic they can be when the order is wrong.  I feel bad sometimes with the content I am required to teach, all I can do is put on a smile and make it the best experience it could possibly be! (As an aside, it is typically not the person at the cash register who got the order wrong, though they are the recipient of the furrowed brow and the opened sandwich being handed back to them. Just as it typically is not the classroom teacher who makes the broader decisions that frustrate the learning cycle in a classroom.)

“Welcome to Moes” is shouted every time someone walks into that establishment. “My pleasure!” ends every response to a statement and a question at Chik-fil-A. These phrases become a bit of a joke among mass consumers, but I think there is something to them.  Some of us avoid particular restaurants because they don’t serve Coke products. When we forget and order the coke and the waitress says, “I’m sorry, is Pepsi okay?” The emotion we feel is hard to encapsulate in words but it is likely frustration and disappointment and is usually followed by an internal conversation “Surely more people in the world drink Coke over Pepsi? Why do they serve Pepsi…” or “ Why don’t they just give us a choice?”

I think restaurants strive to give the best experience to their customers. From seating to service to food choice to timeliness in a drive through. Eating in establishments is differentiated, right? They have customer service surveys at your table to rate your visit. They offer coupons if you complete an online survey. When an order is wrong, the manager typically goes above and beyond to make it right for you. Restaurants thrive on instant feedback to make the experience the best it can be.

Our classrooms are lacking customer service. When do we get feedback about what we are delivering to our kiddoes? Sure, we use tickets out the door and informal formative assessments, but those aren’t measuring their experiences. Those are measuring their cognition. What if we shifted our feedback and started to ask kids, “How are we doing?”

Arby’s does one of the neatest things that begs instant feedback. If you’ve never been to an Arby’s you have to go. There isn’t anything spectacular about their menu. It’s different by the nature of what they serve—and the curly fries are yummy—but the restaurants don’t look typically innovative, the service is fine, but nothing unique. However, Arby’s has a bell. It’s reminiscent of a last call bell in a pub or a dinner bell you might find mounted on the porch of an antebellum home. It’s a mounted by the exit. Customers can ring it when they have had a good experience during their visit.

When I go to Arby’s? I look for a reason to ring the bell. Maybe the sandwich tasted fresh. Maybe I had the longest curly fry I’d ever seen. Maybe the employees carried my tray to my table. Maybe it was just a smooth transaction. I don’t look for the things that are going wrong, I look for the celebrations, so I can ring the bell! I want to be able to give positive, immediate feedback on the experience.

Our classrooms need bells mounted on the wall by the door. We need to be creating contexts in our classrooms where learners want to ring the bell. We want to ensure that we are getting feedback about their experiences.  I would hope the employees at Arby’s would wonder why the bell isn’t being rung and reflect on what needs to change to achieve happy customers. If kids left the day without a bell ringing, we, too would use that as a point of reflection and then action.

What do you do in your classroom that is bell ringing worthy? It doesn’t have to be the end of a lesson. It doesn’t have to be the entire class. Maybe it’s that one individual learner who is inspired by a piece of text? Or maybe it’s the one learner who struggles with persistence and decided to do just a little bit more on a particular problem.

Or maybe, just maybe it’s you.

Teacher Leadership, What’s the Difference?

Recently I’ve been curious about the whole notion of teacher leaders. There is one school of thought that “teacher leader” is just a title with a little oomph. There’s another school of thought that believes it is the teacher leaders who embrace a lead-up approach who are truly the force behind the innovation in schools. (As someone who considers herself a teacher leader, I would ascribe to the latter!) Certainly college of educations across the globe are capitalizing on the moniker “teacher leader” through new programs leading to advanced degrees. But who are the teacher leaders? What is different about us?

There is a certain “je ne sais quoi” that separates teachers and teacher leaders, and it’s not as elusive as people think. What is it that sets apart those of us in education who take on the extra burden, challenge, celebration, task (you name it) of being a leader?

We are deep learners. Teacher leaders are deeply invested in learning. We delve into content and topics and expand our own learning repertoire to really gain meaning. We dissect things, we make connections and we tend to always look for the loopholes, the antithesis of ideas to make certain we truly get more than just the gist of a teaching or viewpoint. This is not limited to education. We do this with everything. Look at a teacher leader’s bookshelf, nightstand, car trunk, junk drawer or basement.

We question. Because we are deep set in learning, we question things. If a method or idea or curriculum piece doesn’t resonate with us, we question. We ask, “Why is this better?” We challenge, “What difference will this make?” We wonder, “How can I take this and incorporate it into something I am already doing?” We know what is right for our schools and we are steadfast in getting the answers to the questions. When we don’t get the answers we are diligent in asking…repeatedly. When we don’t like the answers we become change agents.

We embrace failure. We are the first ones to try that one idea that made us think during the last professional learning workshop. We dog-ear and highlight pages in books to “try this out” or “remember this the next time.” We are willing to try anything once for the sake of learning. We don’t mind being uncomfortable. We have an interesting definition of failure. We see failures as growing and as the potential for improvement. We use our failures as a time to polish our practice and show persistence, patience and a true grasp on the big learning picture. Our failures become talking points to make us vulnerable and approachable.

We problem solve. We are invigorated by problems. We are problem seekers looking for the frayed edges before they start to show. We use our resources and enthusiasm to approach challenges with what is possible, not what is impossible. When others focus on the flaws and shortfalls—the things that are wrong, we focus on the successes, what things are going right, and we get the most out of those things.

We have a sense of urgency. We don’t let grass grow under our feet. We are proactive and exhibit a continual sense of urgency versus a knee jerk state of panic approach. Even when things are good and moving in the direction we want them to, the necessity is steadfast. We move quickly so that when things don’t work out, we can try it again.

We listen. The best leaders are extroverted introverts. We know when to be a voice and we know when to listen. We understand that our leadership should resonate when we are not present inasmuch as when we are present. We have the ability to close out the noise and focus. We read people well. We understand the implicit meaning behind words. We are intuitive. We listen with our eyes and our hearts, not just our ears.

We are reflective. Our learning is a perpetual conversation in our heads (and with others!). We ruminate. We embrace a growth mindset and are fully aware when our thinking is not growth minded. We thrive on tweaking and adapting and changing small parts of ideas. We recognize when things do not work but see that as potential. We do not let perfect get in the way of the good. We understand learning as a process and embrace the messiness of the progression.

We Evolve. On evolving, the musician Usher shares, “If you don’t evolve, you dissolve. If you don’t evolve, you evaporate.” This is so true. Teacher leaders evolve. We expand our repertoire. We advance. We morph. We contort. We transform. Look back on your tenure as an educator. What nook and crannies of your story have changed? What is different? Better? More pronounced?

That indescribable “je ne sais quoi,” the mysterious force that fuels teacher leaders’ success is not really a secret potion. We all have the potential to possess these eight interlocking traits. Imagine the climate and culture of classrooms and buildings and districts, and education, if each of us tapped into just one of these attributes. Then imagine the magic when all of these qualities are sharpened to harmonize and complement our daily actions.