4 Questions To Help You Inventory Your Classroom Wall Space

Every day of 4th grade, I stared at the gigantic poster stretching across the top of the whiteboard: “Common sense is not so common.”

I had not the slightest clue what it meant.

Other than a back-to-school lecture, my teacher never referred to it directly (or perhaps she did, but because of the above-mentioned non-comprehension, it probably just didn’t register).

I spent the year wondering about it to the point of distraction. I sensed that it was important to my teacher, so I spent time trying to crack its cryptic riddle. “Sense. Sense that is common. I think a sense is what you use to smell and taste and stuff. And common means a lot. So smelling and tasting that happens a lot? That doesn’t seem right. Especially since it’s also not common, somehow…

Today, I look back at this memory and chuckle at the sheer bafflement I experienced that year. But as a teacher myself now, reflecting on this does provide a bit more than just a laugh. It makes look inward to examine what kind of experience [intended or not] my walls have given my students.

In my first classroom, the teacher before me had left behind all sorts of posters on the walls, including posters on 6 traits of writing or motivational quotes.

But as the months moved on, I realized that they may as well have been wallpaper for all the benefit my students were getting from them. I did not integrate them in any meaningful way, and eventually, we decided we’d rather make room for student work.

Since then, I’ve found other messages and resources worthy to go on my walls that are the few exceptions to my student-created-only rule. But now I filter them with a mindset that wall-space is valuable real estate; tenants had better pull their weight. I’m not currently in the classroom, but plan to be back in a few years, so meanwhile, here are questions I ask myself as I bookmark, download, & log away ideas for future wall content:

  • Do I find this personally and genuinely inspiring? Some of you may be thinking, wait, aren’t we trying to inspire the kids, here? True. But I’ve found that displaying personally enlightening messages to be much more valuable than any cute monkey-face “you can do it” sign. Here’s why: If it causes me to elevate my practices, and if I regularly communicate to my students how and why it does so, it ultimately inspires students because I’m modeling to them ways I’m trying to become a better teacher for them.  I shared a few examples here, but Brene Brown print-outs are always my favorite:
Via www.BreneBrown.com
  • Is there a trace of lecture involved? If looking at a quote even faintly makes me wonder, “What’s the deal with kids these days!” (ie, the “common sense is not so common” poster) most likely, a) it’s not going to help my students as much as I think it will and, b) it runs too high a risk of damaging relationships with students.
  • Is it an intentional, interactive display designed to help students see themselves as authentic readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, etc? This one is a little more abstract, but luckily, I found the perfect example last week on Nerdy Book Club. It’s bookmarked, tweeted, and had better stay in my memory for when I return to the classroom.
via NerdyBookClub by Jillian Heise
via NerdyBookClub by Jillian Heise

This particular display is meant to share progress on Donalyn Miller’s fabulous #BookADay (also see #ClassroomBookADay) challenge. To me, this isn’t just a bragging-rights kind of display–it’s also a beautiful and handy way to recall individual reads throughout the year that have been meaningful and instructive.

  • Does it bring some rapport-building humor to the mix? In the middle of a grammar unit? This kind of light-hearted and memorable fun would be a must-share.

Whatever you display, remember that there’s a reason that the physical classroom environment is called the “third teacher” — decide now what kind of teacher you want it to be!

What about you? What are your requirements for what goes on your classroom walls? Please share!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Getting to the Other Side of Confidence

I vividly remember my introduction to email. I was over at my friend’s house down the street — they had a computer in their own house! She pulled up her email account and started showing me how to set up a message to send. But even as she seemed to effortlessly correspond back and forth with friends, I remember wondering, how does an email address work exactly? How could a message possibly get from your computer to another person’s computer? It felt wildly beyond my comprehension.

Next major obstacle in my tech journey: Apple’s “There’s an app for that” commercials. I couldn’t wrap my mind around why one would need an app at all.  If we could access the internet on a smart phone, why would we need anything else? My husband tried to explain ease of use and navigation to me, but it still seemed gimmicky, and again, beyond my comprehension.

And the latest hurdle: Twitter. All seemed well when I initially created an account and posted a couple of interesting teaching links. But months later, when I decided to really expand my PLN and dive in, I felt hopelessly inept. What on earth were hashtags? How did chats work? How was I supposed to actually connect with others in any kind of meaningful way?

Roba Al-Assi

This is, of course, just a short list of hurdles which, at the time, felt insurmountable in my ability to progress with technology. Yet somehow, with gradual and almost invisible progress, I suddenly found myself on the other side of confidence.

Interestingly enough, as I reflect further on each of these three anecdotes, I realize that it has taken me shorter and shorter amounts of time to work past the uncomfortable newness (years for the first, months for the second, weeks for the third).  I don’t expect that my next hurdle will necessarily follow form with an even shorter period of uncertainty, but I do feel that it is indicative of a shift in mindset.

This kind of growth mindset in tech has applications for ourselves in our professional development, and certainly in the mindset we can and should hope to model to our students. Here are my takeaways:

  • Recognize that the discomfort is temporary — if we persist.
  • Use resources in established, comfortable spheres to take you through the uncomfortable.
  • Know that both confidence and broadened possibilities (possibly life-changing) are just on the other side of the current discomfort.
  • For every victory, you build up your growth mindset and flexibility.
  • It’s ok to be picky about what you will pursue through the discomfort (we can’t possibly become experts in every new thing that comes our way as teachers or even human beings in the 21st century) — but not if the only reason you skip out on new ideas is because of that discomfort.

What about you? What have been examples of getting through that discomfort in your growth as a teacher?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

“Connect Where Connection Would Previously Have Been Impossible” #DCSDblogs Challenge

This is in response to the #DCSDblogs challenge prompt, “What is the best thing you’ver ever learned from another teacher?” (Note: While I’m not associated with the Davenport School District, I’m grateful for the warm invitation to participate in their blogging challenge, which is a wonderful initiative to encourage teacher blogging)!

A couple weeks ago, I had the following opportunity:

It was delightful to share with those first graders my pantry and the school lunch I’d packed for my daughter, describing what fresh vs. processed foods we eat and why. They had some incredible questions that really made me stop and think, too!

Later, the folks at Skype reached out to me:

When I was still in the classroom, one of my favorite ways to learn was to pop into other teachers’ rooms. Whether I was there to observe instruction or simply to drop in after school for a chat, I felt like I almost always walked away with fresh ideas or perspective.

Now that I’m away from the classroom for the time-being, this ability is no longer available to me. But at the same time, thanks to my amazing PLN, I can still “pop into classrooms” all over the world.

This small Skyping experience is just one of many opportunities for me to “connect where connection would previously have been impossible.”

Take my RSS feed for instance (I love Feedly because I can neatly organize all the websites I like to follow without flooding my inbox with email subscriptions).

As I was finishing up browsing the latest posts from my PLN in my feed a couple days ago, my mom came by. I was casually explaining to her about how thrilled I am to learn so much from so many incredible educators around the world, citing a thought-provoking post I was reading at that moment by A.J. Juliani:

The Game of School vs. The Game of Life

As I turned back to my feed, I commented aloud at a second post that resonated with me by Jennifer LeGarde (aka Library Girl): “The Difference Between I Can’t and I Won’t.”

And that was followed by a third by Pernille Ripp: “On Counting Down the Days.”

And then a fourth by Donalyn Miller: “Desertification by Donalyn Miller

Four in a row! Writing that made me feel, think, and reflect — each tugging me a little further along a path toward change. Pleased with the ready confirmation of what I’d been explaining to my mom about my PLN, I kept exclaiming to her, “See, here’s another! Look!” reading excerpts, and just geeking out in general.

Then, there’s Twitter. Every day, I get to browse photos of classrooms from India, Australia, Canada, Vietnam, and more. We exchange tips, share aha moments, and lend support. In this way, I still almost always “walk away” with fresh ideas or perspective as I did in my old building.

This ability to connect where before, I would have been completely cut off from the teaching world is nothing short of a miracle to me. I am grateful every day to be a “global citizen” and feel confident that when the day comes to return to the classroom, I won’t have too much catching up to do!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

How “Use Your Resources” Shaped My Classroom

“How do you spell _________?”

“What resources could you use to decide?”

“My pencil broke.”

“Could you use your resources to be a problem-solver?”

“I don’t get what we’re supposed to do at this point in our writing.”

“I bet you could use your resources to figure that one out.”

This was one of my go-to phrases with my students. But it wasn’t one of those silver bullet, use-this-and-the-kids-will-do-more-themselves kind of phrase. It took quite a bit of behind-the-scenes effort.

For one thing, there was a lot of ongoing dialogue behind it. 

We would discuss what it meant to be a problem-solver. I would always tell my students, “You may solve your problems in any way that doesn’t cause problems for you or anyone else.” For some, it took months before I could fully convince them that I meant it — for instance, that they could, in fact, use the bathroom without asking as long as they weren’t causing problems.

I would also continually spotlight when students would solve their problems in particularly creative ways, and would praise students for using resources effectively.

For another, I worked to set up a resource-rich environment that students felt comfortable using freely.

Whenever I gave any verbal instructions, I also wrote them on the board so they had that reference. Whenever we worked to uncover new writing or math tools, we wrote our strategies on anchor charts and then posted them as resources to check on. Whenever I brought in new supplies, I told my students about them and asked where would be the most effective storage place.

And perhaps most importantly, I worked to listen to student voice.  

They were always full of remarkable ideas for using and creating resources I hadn’t thought of.  The easy part of listening to student voice was keeping a suggestion box that we would review during weekly class meetings. The hard part was letting go to truly honor that voice by allowing sometimes imperfect or messy ideas to move forward.

After all, if “use your resources” meant they were only permitted to use my resources, or to solve problems within my set of solutions, I wasn’t actually cultivating an environment of student ownership. Real autonomy comes when those in charge don’t pretend they have all the answers.

I was certainly an imperfect executor of this ideal, but I’m enjoying the way I can use my current resources to learn more from my PLN to return to the classroom with a greater commitment to student voice, choice, and ownership.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

When We Love Spreadsheets Too Much: Matching the Tech to the Need

Three years ago, I was hit with bed rest right before the start of our school’s IB PYP Exhibition (a student-led unit in which students exhibit their abilities to direct their own learning on a topic of their choice).

Though disappointed to miss out, I was pleased to discover that I could still mentor groups via Skype, which I’ve continued to do each year since.

However, we still had some hurdles to overcome with our unique mentor “meeting” setup. How to organize our ideas? How to keep track of when we’d meet next? How to exchange links to helpful resources?

I turned, as always, to Google apps, whipping up the collaborative little beauty below to send to the students via the teacher. With more than a little extra time on my hands (remember the whole bed-rest thing?), I found fancy fonts, froze the top rows, and everything.

It was a spreadsheet to be proud of, and I was excited to see it in action!

Only… it didn’t quite perform to my expectations.

For one thing, the kids didn’t have access to 1:1 tech, so they usually only saw the document through their teacher.

For another, they were frankly too busy to be bothered with updating yet another form! Exhibition is one fast-moving, action-packed unit!

Ultimately, the kids didn’t get a lot of the resources they needed in a timely manner, and our communications often felt encumbered.

So, as this year’s exhibition kicks off, we’re keeping it as functional as possible. As we Skype (something I continue as the school is too far from where I live), I type notes in a basic Google Doc just to keep track of the different groups’ ideas. Afterward, I’m emailing the teacher easy-to-print feedback or even pasted-out articles to get resources in those kids’ hands asap!

In the end, it’s possible that this problem might be unique to my quirky infatuation with creating neat and color-coded spreadsheets. However, the general principle applies universally. When we keep our sights on what’s best for the kids, we are less likely to get caught up in bells, whistles, and all-around helpful-in-theory-but-not-in-practice methods and resources. Here’s to a better year of exhibition mentoring!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Inquiry into Collaboration

Whether you are beginning the PYP Exhibition or otherwise would like to recharge your students’ teamwork skills, this week’s provocation centers on collaboration.

One word of caution however: spend more time “coaching from the side” than you do lecturing from the start. Chances are, they’ve heard it all before, and they need hands-on, timely feedback more than anything! (I’ve definitely gotten this all backward in the past, giving far too much time and energy to the initial instruction and then expecting them to put it into practice effectively).

Resource #1: “They All Saw A Cat” by Brendan Wenzel

via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon

Both the advantage and disadvantage of collaboration lies in the fact that we all have different perspectives. Enter “They All Saw A Cat” to get kids thinking about what this means.

Resource #2: 21 Balançoires (21 Swings) by Daily tous les jours

Every time I watch this, I keep forgetting that the background music was not, in fact, a professional soundtrack, but was created by these people simply cooperating with one another on the swings. Sure to evoke serious thought from your students!

Provocation Questions:

  • Why does perspective matter when it comes to collaboration?
  • What makes collaboration work?
  • How has the need for collaboration changed over history?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto