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The Price of Putting What’s Best for Teachers over What’s Best for Students

Heart thumping. Throat catching. I want to sink into the floor. I want to dissolve. One by one, students call out their math quiz scores as my teacher records them in her gradebook. My last name is toward the beginning of the alphabet; my abysmal score will stand out in burning contrast to all the other acceptable scores that come after me.

Mine is never acceptable.

I feel the shame of my teacher’s disapproval.

I feel the humiliation of my classmates’ incredulity.

I feel the weight of the growing belief that I. don’t. belong. 

Day after day, I spent that entire year of elementary school in a sickened panic. I doubt my teacher possessed malicious intent toward me. Perhaps she even hoped that this strategy would help free up her time to better reach her students in other ways.

But put into practice, it served her convenience as a teacher more than my needs as a student.

And as a result, I spent every day, and many years thereafter, believing that she simply despised me. So all-encompassing was that fear and shame, I honestly doubt I was able to absorb much in the way of learning that year.

Now, at first glance, this may seem an extreme example. But here’s the thing: we never know how our kids are internalizing their surroundings; they might be unable as of yet to articulate their feelings even for themselves. With all their personal experiences and circumstances, students often respond differently to identical strategies (for me personally, it didn’t help that that year was also the single most tumultuous period of my childhood).

It is crucial, therefore, that we scrutinize every one of our practices with this question: Is this best for my students? None of us are perfect, and we certainly will make mistakes where this question is concerned, but as long as we keep reflecting, apologizing, and trying again, we can be assured that we are doing all in our power to provide a safe and positive learning environment for our students.

When the answer to that question is anything but a resounding yes, we never know what the price may be.

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There is Room for Us All. There is Room for Us All. There is Room for…

What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage.  Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me.  Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters. ~Allison Stanger

These are the words of a professor who participated in an attempted campus event for Charles Murray to speak (attempted because chanting, chair/window-banging, fire alarm-pulling, etc. ultimately prevented his voice from being heard).

Most, if not all, teachers I know advocate for the principle that we teach our students how to think, not what to think. They invite debate, research, critical thinking, and civil discourse.

So, what is happening here? What is getting so broken when assumptions and hatred win over open-mindedness and compassion?

I believe it comes down to dehumanizing those that seem on “the other side,” even as we work to dispel intolerance. And while I want to make it clear that I don’t believe teachers are to blame for this occurrence, I believe there are some important questions we can ask ourselves to ensure we are, at the very least, not contributing to the problem:

  • Do our students get the sense that there’s a “right answer” when discussing social justice issues?
  • Do we make more room for social issues that align with our personal ideology than with a wider scope (ie, issues facing only one group, a specific political agenda, etc)?
  • When there are misconceptions, do we work to familiarize our students with the individuals around whom those misconceptions center? (see a great example of Pernille Ripp’s class Skyping with a refugee).
  • When we direct our students to research material, do we ensure it is as neutral as possible, or at the very least, balanced?
  • When we disagree with our students’ (and usually their parents’) opinions, how do we respond? What measures do we take to ensure a safe exchange of ideas to promote learning for all (see lessons I learned when parents of one of my 5th grader started pulling their student early each day to miss our read-aloud that involved race)?
  • And perhaps most important of all: When we encounter opinions that sharply clash with our own, do we ourselves start to define that student/parent/colleague more by that opinion than by their humanity? In other words, do we fixate more on how we differ than how much we share in common?

As I have continued to ponder this matter, I realize that I keep seeing this message again and again — that there is genuine power in focusing on what makes each of us human. Here are a few examples from recent resources:

#1: From “Why do Labels Matter?” by SoulPancake

“If we get curious about each other and don’t stick in our bubble, I think that actually can save the world…Because that is where you get to the unifying things…You realize, oh, someone who has been criticized their whole life for what they look like — all of a sudden I remember the places where I’ve been criticized and I go, We have common ground there. So in a sense, we are all the same, but it’s through the differences that you get there.”

#2: “Drawing a Line in the Sand” from Seth Godin’s blog

Problems aren’t linear, people don’t fit into boxes. Lines are not nuanced, flexible or particularly well-informed. A line is a shortcut, a lazy way to deal with a problem you don’t care enough about to truly understand.

#3: “The Tough Work of Improving School Culture” by Brendan Keenan

via Edutopia by Brendan Keenan

#4: Trailer for Accidental Courtesy by Daryl Davis

“For the past few decades the black musician, actor and author has made it his mission to befriend people in hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan by calmly confronting them with the question:

“How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?””

Even when we vehemently disagree, there is room for us all. Because of our humanity. And this is a message our students deserve to have both protected and modeled in every classroom.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

How the World Works: Provocation for Wondering at the World

This is part of a series of of IB PYP units of inquiry provocations. For more, click here.

Season changes are the perfect provocations. Quite apart from their fascinating and mysterious wonders, there’s always something refreshing and hopeful about a new season — particularly spring. I may be overly optimistic at this point, but I feel like spring is just around the corner here where I live. The quail are on the move…the buds look full of promise…the snow is melting…and I’m ready to resume bike riding with kids!

Perhaps this is the reason I feel motivated to share this provocation today. While these resources fit most directly with a unit to do with natural science, the broader concepts are, as always, more interdisciplinary: change, causation, form, perspective, responsibility (you may also be interested in my list of “7 Videos that Will Prove That Science Rocks“). I would love to hear how you share this with your students!

Resource #1: The Discovery of New Species: Infographic by Blue Broadband

The Discovery of New Species by BlueFireBroadband.com [INFOGRAPHIC]

Resource #2: What A Wonderful World: Video by BBC One

Resource #3: The Most Astounding Fact – Neil deGrasse Tyson: Video by Max Schlickenmeyer

Provocation Questions: 

  • How is humans’ understanding of the world changing every day?
  • How does discovering more about the world around us impact our lives?
  • What is humans’ responsibility to learn how the natural world works?
  • Why is there so much humans still don’t know about the world?

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Recovering from Perfectionism for Our Students, for Ourselves

Can you picture the first time you tried to write bubble letters? I don’t know about you, but for me, it did NOT go well. The letters bunched at the end of the page. Some parts of each letter were too fat. Others were too skinny. I knew my attempt looked nothing like my older sisters’ bubble letters, and even less like the cool typography I saw on posters.

I didn’t want anyone to see the ridiculous letters I had drawn. I wanted to hurry and throw the paper away and quickly revert to normal writing — quick! — before anyone could see that I had tried to deviate.

And that is pretty much how I felt about failure throughout my childhood.

AJ Juliani recently wrote about the difference between fail-ing and fail-ure, emphasizing the fact that when we focus on failing, we focus on the process and on how we pick ourselves back up. On the other hand, failure doesn’t have anything to do with getting back up, or with that resilience and determination.

And this is key for that wily perfectionism.

As Brene Brown wrote in The Gifts of Imperfection,

“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

For our students, who are particularly susceptible to making efforts based on peers’ perceptions, we owe it to them to model what shaking off perfectionism looks like. To show the fails and, more importantly, the subsequent attempts.

These days, I try to be honest about what my “getting back up” looks like on a regular basis (When DIYpd Goes Terribly Wrong…Or Does It; That Time I Failed At Inquiry; What Driving Stick Shift Taught Me About Teaching). Where our students are concerned, I think that’s the least we can do if we expect them to take risks and to be courageous as they stretch, fail, and grow each day. And let’s be honest — it’s the least we can do for ourselves.

Here are a couple of videos (by New Age CreatorsDiana Laufenberg) that have inspired me in my continued journey to let go of perfectionism, and to truly learn from failure. May they do they same for you!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Happens When The Author Becomes A Person #TeacherMom

I admit it: when it comes to reading to squirrelly toddlers, I’ve cut corners. I’ve condensed paragraphs. I’ve skipped pages. I’ve proclaimed happily-ever-after’s within 17 seconds flat.

For the sake of packing in as much story as possible before a cardboard box won over audience attention, I even used to omit reading the author’s name. Fortunately, as my oldest’s patience for storytime grew, noting the author’s name was my first step in making literary reparations.

I would never have guessed the ramifications of such a small course-correction.

First, I noticed that my daughter started “reading” the authors’ names, too.

Next, she started memorizing said authors’ names and would make requests at the library accordingly (“I want a Kevin Henkes book! Can we read Mo Willems? How about Steven Kellogg?”). She started trotting right over to their shelves, recalling the location of those authors’ books even though she was a long way yet from reading.

When she eventually started writing her own stories, she was always sure to list herself as the author, too. And the illustrator. And she made sure everyone in her world knew that she wanted to be an author/illustrator when she grew up.

These days, the author is often as much a part of the conversations about books as the stories they’ve written. I tell her that I think she’ll love Clementine because I read Pax and loved Sara Pennypacker’s style. I show her other Shannon Hale fairy tales when she kicks off Princess in Black. We even got excited when we saw that Brendan Wenzel was the illustrator and author for the first time with “They All Saw a Cat,” (having already enjoyed his illustrations in “Beastly Babies” and “One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree”).

In short, the authors and illustrators have become people. We admire not just the work, but the people themselves — people with unique voices, styles, and humor. We get excited when they write a new book, not just because it’s a new book we enjoy, but because it’s something new from that beloved writer.

This practice of spotlighting the author carried over into my classroom, too, with discussions like, “Did you see what Charlotte Zolotow did in that poem?” or “How did Gail Carson Levine’s use of a super comma work there?” We started to notice the deliberate strategies and craft behind what made the writing magical. As a result, we started to see ourselves as capable of developing those strategies, too, recognizing the fact that every author once started where we are now.

When authors come to life, so does our own self-identity as writers. Because if they are real people instead of an abstract idea, then we can see the possibilities for ourselves, too.

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Citizenship: A Sharing the Planet Provocation

This is part of a series of of IB PYP units of inquiry provocations. For more, click here.

The notion of what it means to be a citizen has a longstanding role in schools everywhere. For this reason, we must recognize it in all its modern variations. In addition to traditional community/national citizenship, digital and global citizenship have also taken on crucial significance in the 21st century.  

In all its forms, citizenship comes down to helping everyone find a sense of belonging and contribution to the world. If we are to truly share the planet, we must do all we can to help our rising generation see themselves as local, national, global, and yes, even digital citizens.

Resource #1: “Lead India, The Tree” by Times of India

Resource #2: “I am Malala – UN Speech – Video Animation” by Juley Anthony

Resource #3: “The Power of One Young Digital Citizen

Provocation Questions:

  • What does it mean to be a citizen?
  • What are our rights as citizens?
  • What are our responsibilities as citizens?
  • How are education and citizenship connected?
  • Why are there different perspectives on what it means to be a citizen?
  • How is the concept of citizenship changing?

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Issue of Focus: Working for Student Ownership

Glazed-over eyes. Wandering minds. Fidgeting bodies.

There are endless reasons our students might be disengaged, and almost an equal number of ways to address it. There’s the good:

  • Evaluating & reworking our practices (Too many worksheets? Not enough movement?)

The bad:

  • Ignore it and press forward with a ghostly Professsor Binns doggedness.

And the ugly:

  • Blame it exclusively on the kids and technology (vocalizing with key phrases like “newfangled,” “millennials,” and “lazy.”)

In the midst of a long winter while teaching 5th grade (February can be particularly tough around here), one approach came to me in the form of this quote:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” ~Steve Jobs

The lightbulb flicked on, and I immediately turned the quote into a poster above my door.

As a class, we analyzed the quote together and came to several conclusions, the most important of which was to validate those “other good ideas” on our students’ minds. The discussion went something like this:

“So, is it bad to want to play with toys? Of course not! Is it bad to think about planning your get-together with friends? Absolutely not. Those are good and important things, too. It’s just that we have to say no to those other good things when you have other important things to turn  your attention to.”

This was pivotal for many of my students. The demand to “focus” had long been a struggle of good vs. bad — the things adults wanted vs. the things they wanted. This reframing helped them see that we all have to regularly choose focus by saying no to the other good things in our lives.

It became clear that this kind of validation strengthened my relationship with my students, building mutual trust. It helped them see that I am human, too, and that I, too, need to learn to prioritize my time.

One important note, however: if we view this or any other similar approach as a simple strategy to placate our students, we miss the broader picture. Rather, we should view this as one step toward greater student ownership over their learning. Only then will we move from disengagement to engagement, and then finally to empowerment.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto