Lessons from Apollo

apollosarahMy daughter Sarah, has a wonderful bond with our dog, Apollo. Apollo is a 2 year old, 93 lb yellow lab. He’s playful and so handsome. Sarah is the youngest; there are quite a few years between her and her older siblings. Many times, Sarah is unable to participate in the “older kids” games. This disappoints her, but only for a brief moment. Quickly she runs off to find Apollo, her buddy. Sarah loves to read to Apollo. She’s 6, and a phenomenal reader. She reads non fiction dog books to help him “meet” other dogs. She also plays pretend with him (costumes, make up and all) and enjoys just laying around on him throughout the day. Usually when she does this, she takes his face in her hands and places it to her forehead, telling him in a baby talk way how much she loves him. They are close, like peanut butter and jelly. I’ve watched this friendship bloom and blossom for a few years now, always amazed at how gentle Apollo is with her. During these observations, I’ve learned a lot from our beloved pooch and I’ve realized that they are some of life’s most important lessons.

Always Be Curious and Give Everyone a Chance 

When a friend or family member comes over, Apollo tries his hardest not to jump on them. He is extremely curious about our visitor and why they are here. He will sniff (in places a lady never discusses), lick, step back and rub up against the person, in hopes of understanding who this person is, and what they are about. At times, he will even bring a toy in hopes of playing and unlocking even more answers. Many times he will sit right next to them and glace at our visitor from time to time, hoping for a pet. Sometimes Apollo will give you a hint of what to do, he’ll nudge his snout under your hand for a pet. To Apollo, it doesn’t matter if you are familiar with dogs, and respond right away to his invites to play. Or if you are shy and nervous, when a dog is near by. Apollo will still put himself out there and give you a chance to get to know him, a chance to make a new friend.

He has taught  me to always stay curious and use as many avenues to quench my curiosity. He also taught me that if you close yourself off to new people, you’re missing out on a chance to connect with a new friend. It’s as if he is saying “Stop putting up barriers and just connect with me!”

Be Patient and Move Forward

I am so fortunate to be able to work from home, when I need to. Apollo loves to come into the office and paw me, his way of saying “Hey lets play, I’m ready and waiting!!” There are times when I can throw his tennis ball into the dining room and he’ll hop, hop, hop and slide along the hardwood to retrieve it. There are other times that I must tell him to “go lay down, Mommy’s working”. He slowly but surely meanders to his part of the area rug, dog pillow or chair (don’t tell Justin!) He plops down and waits. He waits knowing that the most perfect time is coming. His eyes glance my way, then look away, then dart back at me again. With each peek, his tail will sway, once, twice then stop. He doesn’t come to paw at me, he knows to wait. When the time finally comes, I call him over, and he is overjoyed jumping all the while! Hopping towards me, as if to say “I forgive you for making me wait, now lets move on and play!”. All is forgiven. Apollo moves on to happy times.

Apollo has taught me that being patient and waiting for the most perfect time, is worth it.  A person should be patient for a good cause and should never doubt or give up their endeavors. It’s difficult to be patient, but so worth it. I’ve also learned that moving forward is necessary. When we move forward from a disappointment or an issue it helps us to realize more significant parts of our journey. It allows new opportunity and personal growth.

Companionship and Adventure

I think Apollo’s biggest disappointment is when we leave the house. A few times he has me and apolloeven come out into our garage eager to jump inside the car with us and go. Dogs are social. They enjoy being around people, especially the ones they love. Staying home alone is not their idea of a good day. Dogs enjoy companionship. They want to share everything with the ones they love; like their chewed up spikey bone, or their slobbered on, shredded stuffed toy. When we do take Apollo out to a park or to get groomed, he is excited for the adventure. He enjoys the risk of an adventure, not knowing where he is going, what lays ahead or who he is going to meet. He gladly jumps in the car and is ready for a ride.

A great lesson Apollo frequently reminds me is to jump in, take risks and enjoy the journey. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Although goals are great to set, we often forget that it’s the journey that matters most. It’s about who you meet on the way, what you’re trying for the first time, and what you’re learning along the way.  Worst case scenario, you won’t like it. Best case scenario, you’ve found a new passion, new friend and will have fantastic stories to tell.

Unconditional Love and Acceptance

They say dogs tend to choose one master that they obey, the Alpha. I must be Apollo’s alpha. He greets others when they come down the stairs in the morning, but he yelps for me to come down too. He will play with others but if I walk into the room he stops and hustles over to me. Apollo will greet the family when they enter our home, but will jump and run and bring toys when I enter. When he was younger, (smaller) I would cuddle him and hold him just like I did my own children. When I cry, he comes and sits on top of me – on my lap really, he’s just so huge! Apollo’s tail  wags when he sees me, no matter what mood I’m in. He gives me big wet kisses, even if I just disciplined him. And he instantly forgives you no matter how I behave. He accepts me, for who I am, not what he wants me to be. I don’t have to impress or try to fit into a certain mold or elite group. He sees me, pure and simple…and loves me anyway.

Unconditional love and acceptance is what I receive from Apollo. He reminds me the importance of this everyday. Feeling genuinely accepted lifts people up. At the most basic level, it makes us feel safe, which is what frees us to be our best. Accepting others means seeing difference as something positive. It means trying to understand how others think and feel, and knowing that this helps you as well as them. It is a difficult task, but it’s the one that would surely make the world a better place if we all just tried.

Yes, we can learn a lot from our dogs. Their curiosity, sense of adventure and unconditional love is unmatched by any human standards. We’ve all heard the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I just never thought that the roles could be reversed and that my sweet boy Apollo, would be teaching me.

Thanks Apollo.

apollo

 

Feedback Loop (Part 2)

1

Some of us are familiar with how to give feedback. We learned at some point in our career about the good old sandwich method of feedback. Begin with positive comments, then add something to work on, and lastly end on a positive note. But each individual is different and the feedback that is given shouldn’t be so systematic and rigid. The receiver will automatically focus on the negative, knowing that it’s coming.

A few years ago, I had read an article that discussed how teachers new to the profession preferred to have more positive feedback than negative. They felt the purpose of feedback should be encouragement and to build their confidence. Veteran teachers however, preferred feedback that focused on their areas of opportunities. They were confident in their skills but wanted to focus on areas where they could improve. What is the best way to provide honest, meaningful feedback?

Before any feedback can be given, rapport must exist between the person receiving the feedback, and the person giving it. This relationship should be built on mutual trust and respect, especially when the feedback is constructive. Tension, anxiety, and an uneasiness can kick in. Our mind immediately tries to reconcile the difference (usually by blaming the person giving the feedback), and can leave the receiver in a defensive state. Even if you were the one asking for the advice, you will still likely have the gut reaction of “they’re wrong”. You must develop a rapport with the person giving the feedback, take emotion out of the feedback equation, and accept it for what it is.

Asking for permission is paramount.The giver of feedback should always ask the receiver permission to give it. A simple “Hey, can I give you some feedback”, then waiting for their response is absolutely necessary. Having the individual’s permission is important because, the receiver needs to be in the right frame of mind to receive it. They need to be willing to hear it, in order for it to be effective.

One could argue that timely feedback is the most critical step. Feedback must be timely if it is to be effective. This means it is consistent, immediate, and ongoing. Feedback must also be targeted. It should be communicated directly to the learner and have a specific focus. Feedback has to be timely, because otherwise the learning opportunity will be lost. It should be in the moment. Waiting too long could cost it’s effectiveness.

“Feedback when given well, should not alienate the receiver of the feedback, but should motivate them to perform better” ~ M.O. Manager, Fortune 500 Company

I often think many do not know how to give proper feedback because, it’s difficult to pinpoint the meaning of it. For those receiving it, they need to understand that it’s not disciplinary action, or a redirection of behavior. It is not someone telling you, you did something wrong. On the opposite end, if you are giving feedback you must keep in mind that neither is it “coaching”. We do not deliver feedback to tell another what they should do differently. The delivery and word choice play a critical part as well. But how? Feedback should focus on two things: behavior and impact.

When providing feedback, it’s important to state what you see. For it to be effective, it must be observable and something a person can control. It focuses on the ability to give specific examples and avoid being judgmental. The feedback giver will point out the direct impact that resulted from the behavior, again trying to be as specific as possible. For example,”When you took the pencil from the student to write the word for him, I noticed that he was disappointed”. Behavior – what happened, impact – how the behavior affected the student, the teacher, or the school. Using phrases such as “made me feel”, or “I noticed that…”, will keep the feedback session from turning into a debate (and coaching).

So, is it possible to give honest, meaningful feedback on a continuous basis, in a school setting? I believe it is. It would require buy-in from staff, PD and training. But I do think it is possible. Effective feedback is short and specific.  It should only take a few minutes. Anything more may not be feedback, and creep towards coaching. It’s important for the giver of feedback to remember to not add suggestions, or advice once the behavior and impact is given. If the receiver wants to know those things, then the receiver can ask for it. The feedback moment ends, and the discussion or coaching begins.

When receiving feedback, you must remember, it isn’t about you personally. Step back and think of the bigger picture. It’s about your students, your team, and ultimately your teaching. They (and you) are all working together to make you better.

 

 

Feedback Loop (Part 1)

“Learners need endless feedback more than they need endless teaching.”

              ~ Grant Wiggins

                                          Less Teaching, More Feedback?

Teachers spend a large amount of their time designing engaging, relevant lessons for students. Many discuss and share ideas with colleagues, constantly picking their brains to thread tech tools, and exciting activities to “hook” their students. Some teachers work on questioning techniques, carefully scaffolding questions to guide learning and help learners think critically and creatively. Teachers work hard on their lessons. When a teacher receives word of an observation, most excitedly get ready for it. They know that a great lesson should have great feedback. Something that can assist them to reach their full potential. But, for me, there are so many questions that center around feedback.

Years ago, I had a student who did not participate in Pre-K or Kindergarten. She came to my first grade classroom, not knowing how to write her name. I remember working with her every chance I got. Every day, we met to read. I provided her with the skills, strategies, and timely, meaningful feedback to help her progress. I provided her with feedback, that was clear and that focused around a specific goal. This information that I provided on a daily basis, helped her progress towards her final goal of reading fluently. Each month I monitored her progress. By the end of the school year, my darling learner was reading on a Fountas and Pinnell level K (second grade). I was amazed at how much she accomplished.

As teachers, we know the value of constant communication and conferencing. We know the power of great feedback and input. We see it on a daily basis with our learners. By providing learners with constant feedback, we can greatly enhance their learning and improve their achievement.We help them to be more aware of how they learn and help them to see their progress and growth, in a non-threatening way. I often wonder what would happen if teachers were given feedback on a monthly basis? Could this constant feedback happen in our schools, for our teachers? Think of how powerful that could be.

At the end of the school year, teachers are lined up to visit with their administrator to discuss their year, their growth. I remember rushing to our secretary’s desk to set up my appointment. I was always so eager to discuss my plans for the following year, always curious as to the feedback I was going to receive. Unfortunately, and to my disappointment, I did not receive much feedback. “None at this time” was written on 13 of my 15 end of the year evaluations. No recommendations or feedback…nothing. The feedback that I did receive, simply urged me to complete my Masters of Education degree, which I did. No feedback, how am I to grow as an educator, if nothing is mentioned? As a result, I decided to reflect even deeper and refine my lessons anyway. I can provide my own feedback. I can still grow as a teacher without an administrator’s feedback, right?

Many people are motivated or inspired by well-delivered feedback. They will also perform better because of it. But I can’t help but wonder, if feedback is absolutely critical for teachers to grow, then why isn’t it done in a more informal, frequent manner?

5-Having-feedback-loop-Elon-Musk

 

This quote speaks to me on many levels. If teachers did this “feedback loop”, would it be important to have someone else give feedback? Why?

Yes, I think it would be important. It’s just as important as reflecting and refining a lesson. I think receiving feedback (positive or constructive) is greatly beneficial in providing growth. Without feedback of any kind, we would not learn at all, period. We would end up doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Their feedback can provide greater insight into areas of opportunity.  This information is the only way to ensure a behavior will change, and it can help individuals focus on some important issues. It is something we need to invite into our personal and professional development, if we want to reach our potential and make our greatest contribution. Because feedback serves so many purposes, it is important to consider how it is provided, when it is offered, how it is focused or targeted, and what is considered in the feedback.

So, that being said, how should feedback be given to ensure the individual does not feel threatened? Can feedback be given on a monthly basis in a school setting? How?  How can we be more open to receiving it? More to come on this…

The Power of Curiosity

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

explore

If you’re a parent, you know that babies are born with limitless curiosity. Just think about all of the things your little one has touched, grabbed, climbed on, stared at, placed in their mouths, etc. As a teacher, who has taught various grades throughout my career, I’ve noticed that for many learners, as they grow, their curiosity is dulled. And by the time they reach adulthood, they’re merely going through the motions necessary to make it through each day instead of actively trying to understand the world around them. Why is that?

In today’s academic environment, parents tend to be so focused on their kids’ skill sets in reading, writing, and math. What they often don’t realize is that skills like curiosity and creativity are what give academic knowledge its power and usefulness in the real world. The truth is, curiosity and creativity are some of the most valuable skills learners can have as they prepare to enter the global economy. As professionals, they’ll have to innovate on the go, think of better ways to solve problems, create time- and money-saving solutions, and much more.

Curiosity and creativity cultivates an active mind. While you might sometimes fear that you’ll explode if your child asks you “why?” one more time, those questions are a good thing. These questions are a sign of an active mind that’s constantly analyzing the world and trying to figure it out. Much of what I teach is inquiry based. My lessons revolve around a real world problem or curiosities that my learners and I have about the topic or concept at hand. The point is to make my learners wonder and help them think critically. A lot of adults like to tell kids things. In fact, if I ask a child a question, many times a nearby adult will answer for/to the child. Why is that?

Throughout history, it’s always the people who ask “Why?” or “How can I make this better?” or “What is the solution to this problem?” who make the biggest impacts on our world. (Think about individuals ranging from Marie Curie to Steve Jobs.) On a smaller, but no less valuable scale, those who ask questions and refuse to accept the status quo, transform companies, lead communities, live adventurous lives, and are most fulfilled personally. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Adults who aren’t curious may do well enough in the world, but they rarely influence it.

“When children are constantly asking questions and displaying curiosity about the world around  them, they’re already well on their way to creating solutions”

~Will Richardson

I recently attended an educational conference where this point was made in an unexpected way. The speaker broke down the process as beliefs, modern context, and practice for modern learning. Most of us don’t tend to think of learning, as being dependent on curiosity and imagination—but it is! The next time your child or learner wants to build a rocket ship out of a box so that they can explore outer space, don’t redirect them to a more ‘educational’ activity. Don’t redirect them to a work sheet or workbook page. Let their curiosity and imagination take the lead. Let them explore their curiosity.

As teachers, we must remember that curiosity is something our students were born with. Our job is to learn how to foster and encourage their natural impulses to ask questions and learn new things. This burning curiosity is the difference between the child who memorizes facts and methods for the sake of a good report card and the child who voluntarily reads science articles and builds their own solar hot dog cooker, because they’re curious. To develop this, we need to re-define the role of teacher and learner. Teachers need to move from primarily being the information keeper and information dispenser to being an orchestrator of learning where knowledge is co-constructed with the learner. We need to become guides, mentors, sources and resources who make use of spontaneous teachable moments to scaffold student’s learning. Schools need to create a “culture of inquiry” that is shared equally by teachers and learners, for this will serve learners well throughout their life.

Reflection 2016

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
Helen Keller

As I reflect on my teaching in a cyber school setting, I realized my view of education, my view of change and beginning new adventures has truly transformed. I teach at a public, charter cyber school. I’m sure some of you will stop reading this post, angry that they even exist. While others may continue on reading, because you’re curious about cyber school and what it’s all about. Although I was extremely nervous to leave my public school position and unsure about it all. I’m thrilled this door opened for me.

This rebirth came at a time when I was contemplating my career in education. I love teaching. I love learning. And I love children. These three things I know for sure. This is me. I was the kid that always wanted to play school. You know, the one that enjoyed research papers, studying and hanging out at the library. I like to joke and say that my strict Greek parents wouldn’t allow anything less than a A+, in all subjects, but in all honesty, I love challenging myself. Taking risks and trying new things are all a part of me, of who I am.

The education world has changed much since I first entered the profession in 1998. I remember a time where our thematic, cross-curricular units were filled with rich literature and engaging activities. Students’ artistic creations covered every inch of our building. A time where a teacher’s creativity soared and excitement matched that of their students. A time when students excitedly ran through hallways eager to learn. I look back on those early years fondly, but with a sense of sadness too. I worked in a traditional public school for 18 years. I saw first hand and experienced the horrors of shifting from child centered pedagogy to test driven, score focused nonsense.

“We’re not teaching to the test” we would say. But we all knew that from 2:00-3:00 pm each teacher was reviewing testing strategies and preparing students for what lay ahead. There were so many times that I would ditch those strategies and have my students complete science experiments. My students were so happy, so engaged, kids love science. They didn’t notice that I was on look out alert, sneaking peeks into the hallway to ensure other colleagues, and administrators weren’t near by ready to question what we were doing. I know, many of you are probably thinking, “Why would an administrator question learning?” or “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness, than…”. Maybe you’re thinking “It’s all in your head”…I’ve heard that a lot, especially from former educators no longer in the classroom. Those who feel they know the state of education, but truly have no idea of the reality teachers in the classroom today face. Beyond frustrated,  I would come home each day and cry. This new reality was too much to deal with. What am I going to do? I thought. Every school district is doing the same thing. Where am I going to go? For six years, I prayed. Hoping the good Lord would answer my prayers and help me move forward.

Each May/June I would send out resumes and credentials. Many interviews and “thanks but no thanks” letters later, I received an email from a cyber school. Funny thing is, I don’t remember applying for a cyber position. The email said, “Send in a video of yourself teaching a concept. Get it to me any way you can”. So, I shrugged my shoulders, pressed record on my iPad and sent the Dropbox link. A few days later I had secured a second interview. A few weeks later, an offering.

I feel blessed to have been given so many wonderful opportunities this year. Now, there are no sneaky science lessons. I am able to create units and lessons that are meaningful and relevant to my students. My students help me and motivate me to explore new opportunities of learning I never thought I would, exploring and creating a Minecraft Unit, tech infused Video/Movie Unit, STEAM and Genius Hour. It feels wonderful to have my administrators support. I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity to get back to “my roots”, get back to what I love to do. My creativity, my energy, my passion is back. Now, I work with educators that value my input. I share interesting educational articles and strategies with my colleagues without the response of “Why bother? Nothing is going to come of it!”. My colleagues are talented teachers, who find creative ways to reach their students without batting an eye. Their passion is inspiring. I’m able to attend meaningful PD and conferences without placing my name on a waiting list, being told that I already went to one, or there’s no funding for any more PD. It was a scary, gut wrenching step to take, but I am ever so happy that I did.

How often do we miss the window of opportunity in a new situation just because we are  sad or frustrated about that other door, that just closed? To me this is another powerful reason to remind myself to stay in the present. Don’t get too far ahead of ourselves and don’t get stuck and hung up on the past and missed opportunities. When you are living in the present– which is a way to live on the positive and open part of the emotional scale too – and not stuck in the past I have found that it is a lot easier to find the hidden opportunities in any situation. So, whenever you see a light dimming or a door closing, take your eyes off it for a moment. And instead of letting your awareness linger on what is in the past, use your time and focus to find the new opportunity that lets you continue the unpredictable adventure that is life.