One Word

2017 was an epic FAIL.

There is nothing more devastating than failing at the one thing you hold dear to your heart. Nothing. It changes you, it shakes you. Failure makes you question who you are at your core. What are your values?

As I self reflect, I realize for me, 2017 brought an abundance of soul searching. It’s not a selfish act, to find yourself. Soul searching is the act of turning your attention inward, of focusing on yourself and analyzing who you really are. We soul search when we are faced with a moral dilemma. We soul search when we need to make sense of how we got to where we are today. Soul searching is like accessing a map and checking in to make sure you’re going in a direction that you desire. It can bring about self healing, self respect and higher self esteem. It cancels out self doubts. The more I soul searched the more self confident I became. There was a new found self awareness guiding me through difficult choices & uncharted territories.

love

Each new year, many across the world select one word to focus on. This word is their vehicle for sustaining their motivation & drive. They are hopeful that this word, brings forth a feeling of self fulfillment.

As I was deciding my one word, I thought I would do some research. I’m a self motivated, self directed learner, so researching something is pretty standard. I wanted a word that represents where I am currently in my life. A word that would propel me to new heights & inspire me to become selfless. I surprised myself with how quickly I thought of it! My One Word for 2018 is SELF.

I know what you’re thinking… how selfish of her! She’s self centered and self obsessed! And honestly, you may be right. If there is anything my personal failures of 2017 have taught me is that I need to take care of me. If you don’t care of yourself, how can you take care of others? If you don’t know yourself, your desires, your needs, then how can you reach them?

Your relationship with yourselfsets the tone for every other relationshipyou have (1)

In some ways, it may seem counter-intuitive to learn how to know yourself. Surely that should be a given, right? Not necessarily. It’s our experiences that clearly shape us into the people we are today. This does not mean that we necessarily know who we really are, what we are passionate about, and what we want from life. Since we were young, we’ve developed beliefs and values, some good and some not so good, as a result of our environment and the pressure from society to conform.

When I was younger, I associated academic achievement and fitting into a group as part of my self worth. 2017 taught me about being real. I began last year feeling like an outsider, a fraud. At my worst, I felt as though I did not truly exist. Without a group to neatly “fit” into, I lost my sense of identity. Who am I? What am I working towards? I realized that I have spent much of my adult life working towards what I thought were important life goals, only to find out they did not mean much to me.

This New Year, I am ready. I’m ready to learn more about me, the real me. I’m looking forward to this world of self discovery and excited to better myself in 2018. Will you come with me on this self learning journey?

How well do you know yourself?

P.S. Through my research I found that there are 328 words that have just the prefix “self”. I hope to explore 52 of them this year… one word each week.

Grow Their Brain

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How do you grow a brain? It’s Saturday morning and I’m deep in thought. I’m revising a growth mindset unit for the following week. After 18 years, I still begrudgingly work on Saturdays. Why is it that teachers don’t like to write lesson plans, but like to be prepared?

This week was the kick off to our Growth Mindset unit.  This inquiry based mini unit focuses on praise, empathy, grit, risk taking, reflection and feedback. It also includes collaborative projects and team building activities.  My learners become familiar with Kid President Pep Talk videos and his words of wisdom and encouragement. It will also be the foundation for our creativity and innovation (creativation) sessions for George Couros‘, The Innovator’s Mindset Online Course #IMMOOC.

Why begin our innovation course with Growth Mindset?

Well, I think about a fixed mindset and growth mindset this way: If teachers or learners subscribe to a common belief that things are good…right here, right now…and not progress forward in any way, the result will be, okay at best (fixed mindset). This way of thinking will most likely not produce anything innovative. If teachers and learners think freely, embrace change (rather than the status quo) they are more likely to create environments that produce risk taking and creative solutions. In other words, a growth mindset will lead to innovative solutions.

When it comes to innovation, I feel a fixed mindset will squash creativity. If my gifted and talented learners believe their innate skills and their current level of intelligence is what helps them succeed, they will fail to recognize the power of continuous learning. They will fail to recognize what they may become.

Can we change a learner’s mindset? How can we best cultivate, nurture and operate a growth mindset within our classroom of learners to drive innovation?

I enjoy constructing units of study. My previous school district did not have a “textbook series” for Language Arts, Social Studies, or Math, when I first started teaching 1st grade, 15 years ago. Our lessons reflected best practices, our learners interests, and each individual teacher’s unique style. They were authentic and real. It’s easy to ditch a textbook, when you never relied on one.

This Growth Mindset unit is called “Growing Our Brain” and it begins with a mini lesson which focuses on the impact of praise. We discuss what praise is, why we give it, what phrases we’ve heard, and how it feels when we work hard on something and then DON’T receive praise. You know, you put your blood, sweat and tears into a project and your work is over looked. OUCH.

As we were discussing this, the conversation turned towards failure and how our learners deal with it. So, I shared two quotes about failure, one from Michael Jordan and one from Thomas Alva Edison. I asked my learners to analyze and interpret these quotes. Some wrote down their ideas, others struck up a conversation. When their responses began to sound similar (they’re about not giving up); I asked them to go deeper, and use their critical thinking skills. I waited patiently. Then, a learner’s profound statement came. He said…

“If we keep trying, and keep trying, and don’t stop trying then we don’t fail. We don’t fail because we’re still trying…we’re still working it out! Failure is when we stop, when we give up. We gotta keep going. Don’t let failure win.”

~ 3rd Grade learner, G&T, Commonwealth Charter Academy

Whoa. My learners “get it”. They understand an important part of Growth Mindset is grit and perseverance. It’s about the process, and sticking with the problem until they figure it out. They begin to understand that their “giftedness” is not so much an innate ability they have, but they can grow their intelligence, continuing their learning. Challenges and working through them will grow their brain. Most importantly, they realize they can succeed in areas that they don’t feel strongly in. They just need to stick with it and grow their brain.

How do you help your students grow their brain? What foundation will you lay for your learners to innovate? How will you do this? Will you adopt a growth mindset? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Miss The Boat

Online education is like a rising tide,it's going to lift all boats.

“Are you crazy?! Have you really thought about this?! People would KILL for your position!”

These are the things my siblings said to me when I told them I was leaving my 3rd grade position at a public school in NJ. I worked there for 16 years. It was a great place to start, I met some awesome lead learners (Hi Brad!), it was fine. As the years progressed, I felt I needed something more. I needed something challenging, something different, something more than fine. I applied and was offered a teaching opportunity at a public cyber charter school in PA. And then things became very interesting.

Most people aren’t familiar with public cyber schools.  I often find myself telling them about our cyber school and all the wonderful learning that happens online and at our family learning center. Then, almost instantaneously the questions begin…

“Do you even teach?” (Yes)

“Do you have a class?” (Yes)

“Do you see them, can they see you?” (Yes, we use webcams)

“Are you giving them links to click on and learn?” (Yes, sometimes)

“Do your learners spend the entire day in front of a computer?” (No)

“How can they learn from the internet?” (Oh, boy…)

A question that a fellow educator and Twitter friend recently asked me has been lingering on my mind. He asked,

“Can you build strong relationships with your students online?” ~ Oskar Cymerman

This stopped me in my tracks. Why would he question this? Don’t we build relationships with individuals online, like I had formed with him and so many others, on Twitter? Can learning relationships only be formed face to face? I continue to learn a tremendous amount from my fabulous #PLN and the numerous chats, blog posts, edu articles, and blabs. Yet, I have only met a few Twitter friends in person. Why was he asking this?

When I began my cyber teacher experience, one of my fears (I had many) was if I would be able to connect with my learners. How would I do that? I have always been an animated teacher. I’m able to capture their attention and incorporate playfulness visually, kinesthetically and vocally into my lessons. I know how to simplify ideas and concepts to reach all learners. Would I be able to do all these things as a cyber, online teacher?  Can I build relationships with my cyber students as I had done with my traditional “brick and mortar” students?

Yes, I can and I have. Yes, we can build strong relationships online. Yes, I am still animated, playful, and fun. Yes, students can connect and learn from a cyber teacher. How can I tell? At our school we receive feedback from parents, students, colleagues and administrators.  My learners and I interact online, and in person. We email, FaceTime, call, we attend various meet and greets, and field trips. I speak not only with my learners on a regular basis but also with their parents who attend lessons with them. YES! Parents sit in on every cyber lesson I have! The trifecta (Student, Parent, Teacher) relationship is so powerful. I am most proud of the relationships I have with my parents and learners. Parents learn together with our class. They support the work we do, add to our discussions, reinforce concepts and ensure deeper learning at home.

I often ask my son Gabe to read my blog, and let me know his viewpoint. This is how he responded…

“You know mom, school is just a place where teachers teach what they have to, you know, curriculum and test prep. When I want to learn something, something that’s important to me, I know where I can find it and who I can learn from. I build those relationships online, I can make them happen. Kids just go to the source.  A lot of the time, well recently, its not from a school, its not from a teacher or the relationship I have with my teachers. I just think teachers don’t understand that.”

~Gabe Howard, 15

Whoa.

Today, learners are not waiting for a relationship with their teacher to form, to learn something new. They don’t have to wait to learn. They build relationships and learn concepts online daily. To disregard this fact, is to disregard our times, what is relevant to our learners now. Our generation of learners are an iPoding, texting, Googling, YouTubing and Facebooking. They live during a time of dramatic technological changes. For many of them, texting is the chosen method of communication and YouTube is the chosen method of online learning. Whether you feel this is good or this is bad, is irrelevant. This virtual presense will not go away.

We as tenured teachers form and maintain relationships by meeting face to face, talking on the phone, and writing notes and letters.  Today’s learners build relationships by texting, Facetiming, emailing and social media. They have access to so much and often times contact the source directly. We need to bridge the gap of old and new. There are more ways to form a learning relationship than face to face. We need to accept and adapt to this modern way. We can’t afford to miss the boat any longer.

Creativation

Creativity is thinking up new things.

I read an article recently which identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Innovation was also in the top five. It went on to discuss the lack of creativity and innovation in US schools. As I read, I couldn’t help but think about what creativity and innovation would look like in my classroom next year.

To me, creativity and innovation go hand in hand. I perceive creativity as the prime source for innovation. I see it as a process, a way of generating ideas and expressions, which can amplify knowledge and lead to new ways of thinking and problem solving. Bringing those ideas to fruition is innovation. It can be an original production, something altered, something better and more useful. There is no one right way or answer. How can I incorporate creativity and innovation into my classroom? What would this look like?

When I think of creativity and innovation as a session in my classroom, I think of it as something similar to my Genius Hour. It’s a time devoted to student curiosity and interest; a time for research, collaboration and exploration. Where every student can feel empowered to explore their passions. Creativation (yes, this is what I will call it) is the adjunction of creativity and innovation. Creativation is a time for divergent and convergent thinking; a time to generate many unique ideas, and to combining those ideas into the best result.

All around us are national and international problems, real world problems of importance %22Creativity and Innovation are about finding unexpected solutions to obvious problems%22-2that desperately need creative solutions. Our world is running out of natural resources each day, many still do not have safe drinking water, and our oceans are heavily polluted. Creativation will give students an opportunity to generate solutions to such issues.  Students will be able to understand the importance of contributing original ideas and being receptive to the ideas of others. They will see creativity and innovation as a necessity. These two necessities of human ingenuity should be unchallenged.

The more I think about creativation, the more I wonder; is it learnable?  Can anyone really learn how to be creative and innovative? I believe so. When I think about it, a vertically challenged basketball player comes to mind. Being tall assists a pro basketball player immensely, but even short players (Spud Webb and Nate Robinson…I know…I’m dating myself) have achieved success through hard work and practice. In the same way, there are certain individuals naturally prone to being creative and innovative thinkers. Creativity and innovation requires a constant shifting of ideas. It requires a blending of new information with old, new ideas with forgotten ideas; a constant back and forth, pendulum swing, the blending divergent and convergent thinking. I feel those who practice creative activities learn to prime their brains’ to think in this way.

So what does this mean for America’s standards-obsessed schools? Creativity and innovation are very much sought after in American schools, but its clearly been misunderstood and certainly not supported. Some argue that creativity and innovation should only happen in an art room, shop class or a kindergarten wing. Others believe we can’t teach creativity and innovation because learners already have too much to learn. Most school curricula does not, as of yet, encourage creativity and innovation, mainly because they are not clear how creativity should be defined and how it should be treated in learning and assessment. A school district’s curricula is often overloaded with content and this content reduces the possibility of creative and innovative learning approaches in practice.

Schools play a key role in fostering and developing students’ creative and innovative capacities for further learning. Creativity needs to be viewed as a cross-curricular skill, a  skill which students should be encouraged to develop. Creativity and innovation isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, it’s fact-finding, it’s rooted in deep thoughtful research.  These are vital stages in the creative, innovative and learning processes. Creativity and innovation have strong links with knowledge and learning. Creative learning requires innovative teaching. This type of teaching calls for educators to become reflective practitioners. Teachers need to be able to distinguish how a teaching method or activity can stifle or trigger creativity and innovation in their students.

One of the enemies of creativity and innovation, especially in relation to our own development is

So, how do we do this? Currently, teachers lack support in bringing forth creativity and innovation into their classrooms. Many focus on convergence and discipline instead of divergence because it’s easier to handle. Teachers play a major role in constructing creative environments. Our teachers need training, support, and encouragement from administration, colleagues, parents, students, and the community. Many educators agree that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way. The time has come to change our educational culture to one that values creativity and innovation and sees it as an asset in the classroom. What will you do differently to promote creativation in your classroom?

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I Don’t Know, But Let’s Find Out Together”

I dontknow

 

“Where do creative and innovative ideas come from?  I mean, is it a step by step process? Or does a flash of inspiration strike a learner in a moment of utter clarity? How does one get to be innovative? Are you born with it? Do you learn it?”

These are questions that my son, Gabe asked recently. We were on a beach holiday a few weeks ago and his firing squad of questions has been on my mind ever since.

Gabe is a very bright and very studious young man. He enjoys his tech and sci-fi movies. He loves to dabble inGabe gamer chats and Twitter chats (with his mama) too. We often discuss education, though sadly, he has clearly mentioned he will not be an educator. He believes that learners have a voice and strongly feels that educators need to listen more to their learners. Gabe and I were discussing innovation and I mentioned how important it is to allow time for learners to tinker and encourage them to innovate. You never know what ideas learners can come up with and where that will lead us globally. He was intrigued by this, hence the questions.

As a questioner myself, I took a moment to think about them all. His questioning came on so strong, one right after the other, without a moment to breathe or think. A few minutes later, I simply answered, “I don’t know, Gabe.”

“You don’t know?” his eyebrows lifted above the rim of his glasses. I took notice of the look of pure surprise on his face, he truly looked stunned. I am sure it was not the first time I had answered him this way. Why the look?

“That’s it? That’s your answer?”he asked unsatisfied.

I smiled, nodded my head and bit my lip, “Yes, …and that’s a good answer”, I replied.

As I sat there, and stared at my 15 year old, I started thinking: how many times do we give a “best guess” to a series of difficult questions? Did he want me to guess an answer? Maybe he wanted me to Google it? Did he want me to “bs” him? You know, give him a round about answer of “it could be because of this…that…and maybe …”. I’m quite proud of his ability to formulate a strong question. I respect him and his ability to do that, as my son and as a learner. I thought I answered him well. However, I could see in his reaction that my response was disappointing and puzzling to him.

Is it a good thing to admit you do not know the answer to a question? 

Like most things in life, I think it depends on many variables. It might depend on the context of the conversation, the personalities, who you are speaking with, your familiarity with the topic and a whole host of other variables that may influence the outcome.

I feel some of us who are in positions to provide answers, solutions or solve problems may be afraid of the phrase: “I don’t know.”  In reality, those 3 little words hold a lot of power. It is an honest expression. It is a genuine expression of your lack of knowledge of a topic. When stated truthfully, those words can build trust. Why is it that this phrase can leave some disappointed and leave those reciting it, embarrassed? Why can we not accept “I don’t know” as a viable answer?

Learners anticipate answers from teachers; they expect it. Some answers satisfy, others don’t. It is our responsibility as life long learners to admit when we don’t know something, but more imperative to provide guidance on how to find that answer.

Quotation-Daniel-J-Boorstin-The-greatest-obstacle-to-discovery-is-not-ignorance-it-is-3-21-44

As an educator, I feel you need not have all the answers on the spot. The smartest people in the room know when a question is beyond their knowledge and understand the power of consulting with others and learning together. They know the answer, “I don’t know” is acceptable, it’s truthful. Most importantly, it can lead to powerful learning and thinking. The collaboration and relationship it can build with the learner, is unmatched. As educators we should commit to answering the unknown together with our learners. It is far better to admit you do not know something than make something up and hope they do not call your bluff. The next time you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid or embarrassed.  Instead just say “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.”

family

A Beer, Storytelling and Spanakopita

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I was so fortunate to have had an opportunity to visit with relatives in Canada recently. Thanks in part to social media, annual Christmas cards and phone calls, I have been able to stay connected throughout the years to my Uncle Jack and Aunt Voula. This trip was an emotional one, and reminded me of my parents, especially my mom.

My mom had the gift of storytelling. Storytelling is truly an art form and apparently, runs in my family. I was always amazed at how well she could tell a story and describe events so vividly. I would close my eyes and turn her words into a movie in my mind. I can remember asking her questions about her childhood, curious to learn about this amazing woman I called Mama. Through her stories I learned about her life on a small farm in Greece. I remember her stories of determination and defiance, when her father, my Papou, wouldn’t let his girls go to school and learn. My mama would sneak and learn anyway, only to be punished for it later. The harsh punishment didn’t matter to her, she continued to go. Yes, my mama was a tough lady, a true pioneer of her time. I learned history through her storytelling too. Like how the Nazis didn’t find her farm, nestled in the hills and outskirts of the small town of Analipsi, Greece during WWII, but how the Greek communist rebels (andartithes) did. I remember her crying as she told me how they hit my Yiayia (grandma) with the butt end of their rifles, as they took over their farm. I learned important life lessons, many of which I remember and can visualize today. This trip to Canada fed some of my curiosity about my mom’s family, and gave me a better understanding of my roots.

My Uncle- Theo- Jack, is a simple man, with gentle blue eyes. He tells me blue eyes run in our family. I am certainly the odd ball out, for I have green eyes. He wakes up early and works out at the local gym with his youngest son, John. Theo usually beats John there, arriving at 5am if not earlier most days. He comes back home, washes up and then he is out the door again. He spends most of his mornings at his garden, weeding and pruning. Today he is collecting zucchini flowers, cucumbers and green beans for our afternoon lunch. IMG_6308He greatly enjoys gardening and will often plant various bushes and flowers to adorn Bill’s, his eldest son’s, dentistry practice. Like most men, Theo Jack enjoys cars. He likes to drive his “big car”, the largest BMW I’ve ever seen, loaded with all the bells and whistles you can think of, very fast around the block. He smiles as he hugs the corners of various avenues. He laughs as I slide across the leather seats and grab the “oh shoot!” handle above the window. The need for speed must run in our family.

Sitting on his deck, overlooking the city of London, Ontario, drinking a beer together, I felt the urge to ask him a question. If you know anything about me, you know that I always ask questions. I have this innate ability, to think out loud and question things. It has gotten me “in trouble” as a child, and even more so as an adult. I’m not sure why others think I am challenging them, in all honesty, I am not. I just like to question and will question FullSizeRendermost things for my own benefit and better understanding. I asked Theo Jack why he chose to live in Canada, and not the US like the other members of our family. His response intrigued me. He said “I had visited the States but, it didn’t hold my interest. Sure there were some nice areas, but I was looking for something more. Canada really felt like home. It is beautiful here, wide and open. I came to Canada and stayed here for my children.  I wanted them to have opportunities and to have a better life. My heart though, is in Analipsis” (his small hometown in Greece). “Why Theo?” I asked. He proceeded to tell me about his education, traveling to his small school, an hour walk, one way, in all types of weather, barefoot. He told me how poor his family and all the families in their town were, and how they would send him to school with one slice of bread and a piece of feta cheese, that was breakfast, lunch and dinner. He told me about the one time…one time…he was punished by his teacher. He told me how he held out his hand and the teacher whipped his palm with a thin tree branch. Over and over. He never misbehaved in class again. As the story telling continued, I pictured my mom and Theo Jack together. Her childhood stories and his intertwining, weaving them into a family quilt, that presents with me with a better understanding of their life. Noticing my gaze, and how I am drifting off into my own thoughts about my mother, he says…

“Your mama was a very smart woman, one of the smartest women I knew.” He brought me back into the moment. I looked at him, then looked away as tears welled up in my eyes. My mom died quite some years ago, and her passing is still hard for me to discuss. I sat there biting my lip, another habit of mine, trying to keep my emotions at bay, he continued on.

“She was strong, a hard worker. She had a vision. Your mama wanted a better life and would not settle. Many women and men misunderstood her. Back then, women didn’t do what she did. They didn’t question things, they didn’t question authority like she did. She always pushed forward.”  

I will remember his words for as long as I live. I sat there, letting his words linger in my mind, as my Thea Voula, Theo Jack’s wife, joined us with a plate full of her homemade spanakopita and some fresh fruit. She placed forks and napkins on the table by each of us, and urged us to eat. She is a mama to me; we are very similar. We share a passion for learning and a love of literature; our favorite, Anne of Green Gables. She too, is a strong lady, very honest with a gentle smile. She is refined and elegant, as many women from her generation are. When she looks at you, her cheeks plump up and her eyes sparkle. Her love for you shines from them. My Thea, had christened me with the nick name of “Cute”. As a child, she would call my parent’s house and ask how “the cute” was doing. Even now, when I call her I always say “It’s “the cute” calling “.

Still curious about my family, I asked how she and Theo Jack met, hoping for another story. She looks admiringly to him and asks if he would like to tell the story. He shakes his head no, and she begins…only to be interrupted by him a moment later. She raises her hand and says, “I offered for you to tell it, you declined. Please let me talk, don’t interrupt me”. He shakes his head, smiles slowly and listens in. Story telling at its finest.

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Why Wait to Learn?

 

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I received an email today. It was from one of my G & T students from this past year. “What have you learned so far?”, she asked. Her question brought a huge smile to my face.

Every year, I mention to my students how much I love to learn. I tell them that my learning doesn’t stop just because I’ve gone to college or graduate school. I’m a life long learner. “What’s that?” they all ask. Then our discussion begins.

We talk about how important it is as a learner to continue on questioning things. Throughout the year we focus on our curiosities and how they can guide our learning. We discuss our brains and how when it comes to learning, the brain can be similar to a muscle. This muscle, like any other, has to be regularly exercised. As we get older it will be extremely important for us to continue exercising it, and there is nothing that compares to learning and critical thinking for keeping the brain in tip-top shape.

Lastly, I mention how much I enjoy my summer learning. “What do you learn?” they ask. Whatever I am curious about, I answer. “What do you do with what you learn?” they ask. I tell them how I learn for me and for them. I like to know about things that interest me. I like to incorporate what I’ve learned to help others learn too. I then turn the tables and ask them, “What if you really wanted to learn about web design, would you wait for a teacher to teach you? Or would you learn about it on your own?”

“Why would a learner wait to learn?”

Listening to their responses, reminded me of an article I had read while in graduate school. The article was written by Geoff Eggins “Teacher Learners: Towards Realistic and Sustainable ICT Professional Development in Schools” in the journal Education Technology Solutions (Issue 41: April/May 2011). I think of it often and the message that it relayed. In the article Eggins asks:

“Why [do] many schools ignore the lifelong learning goal for their teaching staff’s professional development?  Has it been decided that teachers will not be in the profession long enough to warrant teaching them how to survive their future?  Have we made the assumption that teachers have already learnt how to learn?”

He states that teachers need to be shown how to learn so that they can not only stay ahead of rapidly changing technological advances, but to also be self-starters so that they can learn on their own rather than having to wait for the next time they are able to attend a professional learning course or program. This spoke volumes to me. I was on a waiting list at my former district for an out-of-district professional development opportunity. I look back and think how ridiculous it was to wait! I can understand the financial burdens that weigh down a school district and their reason to limit outside PD opportunities. I understand their reasoning to “spread the wealth”. However, this should not keep teachers from learning. We have so much at our finger tips; books, the internet, social media, twitter educational chats, etc.  We have a world that we can explore to our hearts content. Why wait to learn?

Eggins continues to say, how some teachers are sitting back, waiting to be told what they need to learn or to be directed by others. Sadly, this is the model of professional learning that is rapidly increasing in our schools. He concludes that:

“Professional development should teach teachers how to learn, not just how to teach.”

My hope, as a teacher, is not for my students to achieve the highest marks on a standardized test. It’s not to have them gather around me to hear me spew information that I’ve learned. My hope is for my students to become lifelong, self-learners, who take more of a personal approach and responsibility for their ongoing education. I am not talking about graduate school or doctoral studies here. I am talking about a more creative, independent way of learning that does not stop. Personalized learning that picks up pace  when the learner is curious and inspired, when real learning – based on experience and observation – starts happening for them and because of them.

What is Your Purpose?

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“What is your purpose as an educator?”

My husband, Justin, asked me this question a few months ago. We were discussing how districts and teachers try to create and take a student centered approach, but very rarely manage to sustain it. We went on to discuss and examine the various reasons why, too many to list. Justin was a former educator and administrator and currently works at Apple Inc. I still try, unsuccessfully, may I add, to persuade him to return to his roots of education. As the weeks passed, I kept hearing his question in my mind.

Grade level meetings are every Wednesday in our cyber school setting. No elementary teacher teaches her lessons on Wednesdays. This day is solely set aside for PD, team building and prep. Yes, an entire day! Yes!! I love this day and feel very fortunate to be able to have time to view my learner’s work and plan accordingly to their needs. My third grade team of teachers are amazing. I like to think of us as a beautiful tapestry; each thread, intricately woven together, each an important part of the whole. For this particular meeting, we were discussing our digital portfolios, rubrics and grading student writing. We spent quite a bit of time focusing on deductions for student writing. I sat back and listened. Deduct, deduct, deduct.

What is your purpose as an educator? Is it to overwhelm a struggling writer?

Many teachers tend to correct every single convention error they see in a learners writing piece. There’s much to look at; spelling, grammar, mechanics, sentence structure, just to name a few. This takes a huge amount of time for the teacher. It also creates a huge burden on the struggling writer. Images of bright red ink on white lined notebook paper, comes to mind. As a young learner, I found it difficult to write and let the words flow out of me.  These corrections placed on my writing, overwhelmed and paralyzed me. I was more focused on the deductions, my grade, than on my message.

Every teacher has to lay to rest, this tension between viewing writing as generating and shaping ideas, and writing as a final product that focuses primarily on correctness.  Which is more important, the message or the conventions? The process or the product? The student or the grade? These are the types of questions we need to ask ourselves as teachers. On the one hand, it is important for writing to be as correct as possible. Young writers need to be able to produce well written, correct texts so that readers can read and make meaning from them. On the other hand, achieving correctness is only one small, tiny set of things writers must be able to do. Is there even a formula for resolving this tension?

What is your purpose as an educator? Are your writing lessons based on your agenda or your students needs?

I am a firm believer that writers do not accumulate skills and strategies once and for all. When conferencing with my learners, I learn how I can best assist them, how best to plan my writing lessons. I provide honest feedback and discuss areas that they seem to have a good handle on and areas of opportunities (improvement). Even if it’s something that we have already visited, discussed and reviewed. It’s perfectly fine to revisit that concept again, if that is what your students need. Young writers develop and refine writing skills throughout their writing lives, they take up new tasks, in new genres, and for new audiences. They grow continually, using numerous writing spaces and technologies.

Often in school, students write only to prove that they did something they were asked to do. They write in order to get credit for it or for a high grade. They write because someone in authority tells them to. Writing is not a command or a chore. It is not just one practice or activity. Writing a letter to a friend, is not like a writing a scientific research report, which is different again from writing a poem or explaining your reasoning in solving a math equation. All the different purposes grow out of different relationships between writers and their readers. As educators, we must convey the message of writing with certain purposes in mind.We can conclude that an author’s writing, is shaped by their purpose, the needs of their audience, and the conventions of the genre.

writing

What is your purpose as an educator? Is it just to deduct points from writing assignments? 

I have such mixed feelings in regards to grading. What is an “A”? What does it mean? Have students really mastered these concepts? Can they apply them? Why do we place so much emphasis on scores? Our focus should be on our students, where they are in their learning and digging deeper. As teachers, we need to meet students where they are, in regards to their writing. The ultimate goal  should not be correctness. It should not be pre-planned deductions. When grading students writing, we need to focus on each individual young writer. And if there is one thing I’ve learned from my learners is that writers start in different places.

I have some students who are very comfortable placing their ideas and thoughts on paper. They know what their purpose is, and who their audience is. They take risks with their writing. When I conference with them, they accept feedback and are off to jot down their thoughts on something else. However, I have many learners in my gifted class, who hesitate and cry when asked to write.  They struggle tremendously and are unable to even begin. Often times, I ask them to tell me their thoughts. “What do you want to write about today?”, I’ll ask. They begin to tell me about their weekend, soccer game or party they attended. As they do, I ask them if they can type those same words and sentences down. Many do, others hesitate, so I take on the task and then have them take over.

As a teacher, I can not consciously grade these learners the same way. I can’t. It would be unfair. They are at different places in their journey of the writing process.  My hope is that I move them toward greater flexibility, so that they can write not just for their own reasons, but for wider audiences. I hope my learners can feel comfortable writing and not view it as a daunting task. I want them to share their message without even thinking about their grade.

“Empathy is when a person accurately communicates that they see another’s intentions and emotional state. It means watching a child’s frustration and focusing on how life feels in that little child’s body, while putting our own agenda into the background.”

~Andrea Nair

So, what is our purpose as educators?

One could respond to this question in many different ways. To me, our purpose is to have a great deal of empathy for our learners. Our focus should be on nurturing our students and their learning, not judging their performance. A student’s emotions affect the way they learn, and how much they learn. Educators must be able to connect to, and understand their students in order to best serve those students’ needs. Teachers who choose to empathize, are making a vulnerable choice. They are making a conscious effort to see, understand and connect with their learner as they are, without judgement, agreement or disagreement. This is quite a challenge for many.

The teaching of writing means considering the learner, understanding where they are coming from. Considering cultural differences of our students, as well as linguistic, racial, and economic differences, is paramount. Knowing what kinds of language a writer speaks at home, makes a huge difference in understanding them, their words and their message. Even more so, we need to consider digital innovation and how that has created new contexts and new languages which are being invented on a continuous basis. It’s imperative to understand how these language experiences influence the way a learner composes their piece. We should ask, “Where is the learner is in the writing process? How are they incorporating their experiences into their writing, to reach their readers. It’s not so much about the finished piece or product, its about their journey through learning to write. We must consider and include theses areas, to whatever other guidelines already exist. Ultimately, understanding our learners experiences – who they are, where they come from – is what will catapult their success.

 

 

 

 

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)

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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.