I Can Never Go Back

A couple days ago, I was chatting with friend who teaches in our local school district. I shared my plan to teach in the same district when my kids reach school age (due to unfortunate logistics, I won’t be returning to a PYP school). Then I shared that I am nervous about doing so. And then she asked me why.

I was grateful for the chance to really consider the question; I’ve been fretting about it for some time, and fretting is never as productive as reflecting. Why am I nervous? Is it that I’ve been away from the classroom for too long? Am I worried about transitioning back to working full time?

Then I realized the answer rested in a story I wrote on Edutopia a couple winters ago in which I shared before/after approaches to teaching poetry (& literacy in general):

“My students could describe the difference between a limerick and a couplet, but could they articulate why a poem mattered to them? I knew the answer was no.”

In recalling that anecdote & sharing with my friend, I realized I can never go back to teaching in a way that prioritizes memorizing content over constructing meaning. My nervousness stems from not knowing to what degree my yet-unknown future school will let me choose.

If I needed any further convincing about the impact of the latter approach, a parent of one of my former students recently shared a video of his performance as captain of his school’s poetry slam team. In her words,

“Today my son whom is ADHD, struggled reading for so long just lead the first ever Herriman High High School Slam Poetry Team to a 6th place finish. He was team captain and scored the highest of his team with a 27 out of 30. His original poem was on being ADHD and it was remarkable.”

Take a listen. I promise it’s worth the 3 minutes.

And I can never go back. After witnessing the way learning can truly transform & empower & matter, I can never go back.

As if to reinforce this conclusion, later that day, the words from “Come Alive” in The Greatest Showman jumped out at me:

“No more living in those shadows
You and me, we know how that goes
‘Cause once you see it, oh you’ll never, never be the same
We’ll be the light that’s shining
Bottle up and keep on trying
You can prove there’s more to you
You cannot be afraid

Come alive, come alive
Go and ride your light
Let it burn so bright
Reach it up
To the sky
And it’s open wide
You’re electrified

…So, come alive!”

It should be noted that my friend kindly reassured me that she thinks I’ll find a good fit in the district, and I’m sure she is right. Meanwhile, I will try to convert my nervousness into commitment to, as my friend Monte Syrie regularly says, “Do. Reflect. Do Better.” Which is something I know with certainty that I owe to my past & future students, and to myself.

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Revisiting Debate on Teacher’s Personal Generosity

I first started blogging here when I was put on bed rest, mostly because I needed something to minimize the depression and sudden disconnect from teaching.

Then, when I decided to continue my break from the classroom until our little ones are in school, blogging became a way for me to stay involved in the teaching world while meeting our family’s current needs. Because it’s a sponsored blog, it also became a way I could continue to contribute to our family’s finances in a small way.

All of this seems reasonable enough, but that last bit in particular gave me trouble for the first year or so. I struggled with feeling like I had become an outsider selling ideas to teachers still in the trenches.

None of this was helped by the fact that when I first started, I thought I needed to focus my content on what seemed “clickable.” My posts needed to be as shiny, professional, and appealing as possible on a sponsored blog, right?

All of that worry dissolved as soon as I remembered to simply focus on the learning. My learning as well as student learning. Interestingly enough, this became much more practicable for me when I switched to blogging 3 days a week on a topic schedule — it has me looking for learning opportunities everywhere.

I share this story as a way to continue the discussion on teacher’s personal generosity.

Any time we introduce a business element to the teaching profession we run into this pitfall: it becomes a constant incentive to focus on what would sell over what’s best for students and learning. What’s worse is the fact that the shiny glitzy stuff does sell because, well, learning is messy, and who wants to buy messy?

As Edna Sackson pointed out this week:

In my last post on teacher’s personal generosity, I chose to focus primarily on compassion, understanding that since teachers are so often underpaid and under-budgeted, we should be cautious about judging. I only added a P.S. to watch out for the fluffy extras that have little to do with learning. I now realize that was a mistake, because it fails to acknowledge how tempting it becomes for learning to go out the window when faced with commercialism.

The truth is that whether we’re in or out of the classroom, we’re all surrounded by companies, programs, & yes, “Craptivities” vying for our attention and money. We must be seriously discerning consumers and contributors, filtering out the valuable learning from the time-fillers/control-perpetrators, and welcoming feedback when we fall short (which is, of course, one of the reasons I am so grateful for my PLN!).

Ultimately we can recognize the limitations and strains placed on teachers while also insisting that what we share, buy, retweet, and pin is worthy of our learners — their agency, their voices, and their dignity.

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What Trust Is Not…

Whenever we talk about trusting our kids, reservations inevitably arise. Safety? Wasted opportunities? Wasted time?

Often, these fears grow from a convoluted interpretation of what it means to trust our kids. So I’d like to start a discussion here on what trust is not. Trust is NOT…

negligence. Quite the opposite. When we define all the timetables, we are directors of our students, which really can take place at an arm’s length (I assign the work, you complete it by the end of class, test, repeat). When we trust, when become learners of our students, watching and listening as we immerse ourselves in their progress, offering guidance along the way. I found this approach to be beautifully captured by Faige Meller here:

We always wonder if they’re learning, if we’re doing a good job, if were covering the curriculum and if they’ll be ready for the next grade? We test, we do running records, we talk, we ask questions and we write report cards. But I have another idea!  How about we also watch the kids, we listen to them as they’re doing the learning. We see how they incorporate what we’ve taught in their authentic application of the learning as they write graphic novels; how they laugh gleefully reading to each other, discovering something in the story that was new to them; how they figure out how to cut paper to make pop ups (there’s math there folks,) and how eager they are to share with their teachers all that and more!

turning a blind eye. Sometimes, our students will waste their time, just as at times, adults waste time. But that doesn’t mean that clamping down on trust for them all is the answer. Trusting our students involves getting to know them extremely well. and then using that information to make more whole-picture decisions when they seem to fall short. This example from my friend Monte Syrie went viral on Bored Panda because people know it’s not about ignoring problems, but acknowledging the whole context with humanity.

a total lack of boundaries. That, of course, would be educational suicide. The nature of boundaries in a trust/student-centered classroom is a much more nuanced conversation. But mostly involves a lot of conversations with our students, both on the individual level and as a whole. More on that discussion here in “Baby Gates & Boundaries.”

insisting on too little structure too soon. Especially after years of being trained that teachers make all the important decisions regarding their learning, it’s understandable that many of our students struggle with ownership being given back to them.

We recognize that working toward greater levels of trust, along with that “gradual release,” is always an ongoing process, guided by how well we’ve come to know our kids and gaining their trust in return. (planning on centering next week’s provocation around this!)

lack of planning. When we become more focused on following and trusting the child, we work to become experts of the mandated curricula so we can identify where to help students make connections in their own learning paths. Sonya terBorg describes this well in her post on control:

Giving control of learning to the child doesn’t mean sitting in the corner with your feet up and letting them flounder.  It means becoming an observer, a guide, a road map of sorts – ready to be referenced.  It means being attuned to what is going on in your classroom and being prepared to ask for clarification from the children in your class.  It means posing the right questions, sharing the right provocations, providing the appropriate amount of time for them to work their magic.

unwarranted risk. We may face the raised brow by those who claim that the system — the programs, the lectures, the testing, the teacher control — is working just fine. For the few that still believe that, it may be hard to convince them that any deviation is necessary. But for those of us who see that kids aren’t retaining information fed to them in traditional school, aren’t applying learning in ways they find meaningful, or aren’t developing the skills the 21st century (and 22nd) will demand of them, we see we really don’t have a lot to lose with making a change. You’ll find a lot of us on Educator Voices, a shared blog of teachers who “share and celebrate how we are pushing the boundaries, shaking up the system and challenging the status quo!”

In the end, we may worry about what might happen if we trust our kids, but what we should be worrying about is what might happen if we do not. The benefits and opportunities far outweigh the perceived risks of trusting our students, as Taryn writes, “to make mistakes, fail, run out of time, learn, reflect and, inevitably, grow.”

(by the way, I have to throw out that this totally has #TeacherMom applications, too. See one of my favorite parenting sites, LetGrow, to learn how we can better trust kids to own their own childhoods).

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7 Ways For Promoting More Choice within “Compulsory Schooling”

In John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down, he contends that compulsory education impacts children in the following ways:

#1: It confuses students.

“I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion.”

#2: It teaches kids to accept their rigid class & grade-level placement.

“The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic.”

#3: It makes them indifferent.

“The lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?”

#4: It makes them emotionally dependent.

“By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.”

#5: It makes them intellectually dependent.

“We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices.”

#6: It teaches provisional self-esteem.

“A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be.”

#7: It teaches them that they cannot hide, due to constant supervision.

“I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.”

While I don’t necessarily agree with all he writes, he makes a pretty solid case regarding these consequences of the institution of school. Despite the fact that he wrote it in 1991, we are still seeing similar consequences today.

by Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman, April 22, 2018

Nonetheless, here in 2018, we have so many opportunities to address these issues, even within the construct of “compulsory schooling.” I would like to visit how we might address each one today.

#1: Confusion Seek out inquiry & concept-based learning in which students start with the big concepts. Start with the student by provoking thinking and connections. See my list of provocations here on concepts ranging from empathy to color to how we organize ourselves. And check out Laura England’s fabulous recent example with her students’ big thinking.

#2: Accepting class/grade-level placement  Encourage student voice & global collaboration. Solicit their feedback & regularly meet in class meetings to ascertain their feelings about “how things are” and whether they have ideas on how it might be better. And if they want to talk with students or experts beyond their assigned grade level, facilitate that! See amazing examples here.

#3: Indifference Make time for student inquiry such as Genius Hour or Passion time for students to pursue personally meaningful learning over the longterm. See AJ Juliani’s guide.

#4: Emotional dependence → Reject trinkets & prizes in favor of intrinsic motivation. See this great example of how we can do so with regards to reading from Donalyn Miller.

#5: Intellectual dependence Put students in the driver’s seat as often as possible, from planning their day to self-regulation (see more details). 

#6: Provisional self-esteem  Implement Student-led conferences & blogging to allow students to clearly recognize and share their own learning.

#7: Lack of privacy  Ask what parents need (& otherwise view ourselves as support/appendages to the family, rather than family as an appendage of school).

There will always be limitations within the rigid public school system. However, especially as we make advances in technology that provides more opportunities for personalized learning and agency, there will always be ways to find flexibility to help learners take more ownership over their lives as learners. It may be the next best thing to fully self-directed learning.

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Turning Around “Family as Appendages of an Abstraction”

This phrase, “family as appendages of an abstraction,” leaped from the page as I read John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down. While there were several points in the book with which I disagree, this one stands out to me, because it is a harrowing reminder of the ways that once viewed family as an appendage of school, rather than the other way around. This included:

  • Insisting that reading logs be signed by a parent each night, even when a parent told me she knows her daughter reads for hours each day & indicated that the log would not have any value for their situation.
  • Questioning why on earth a parent was opting out of homework so her daughter could focus on her rigorous gymnastics practice/competition schedule.
  • Feeling frustrated when some families expressed dismay when we discontinued math worksheets for homework in favor of what we viewed as a more relevant, choice-based approach (“Can’t they see this is better for their kid than some worksheet?”)
  • Any time I viewed myself as a greater authority on a child’s needs than the parent.

I cringe at these memories. Families are a child’s most lasting community, and parents their most lasting teachers. Gatto writes,

“The deepest purposes of these gigantic networks [like schools] is to regulate and make uniform. Since the logic of family and community is to give scope to variety around a central theme, whenever institutions make a major intervention into personal affairs they cause much damage. By displacing the direction of life from families and communities to institutions and networks we, in effect, anoint a machine our King.”

It’s why I appreciate teachers like Taryn Bond-Clegg who realized that on the homework issue, rather than making mandates for or against, she could ascertain from parents and students themselves what would be most helpful for their families.

It’s why I recently wrote about ways we can truly form partnerships with parents.

And it’s why I loved this response from Chris Tuttell on Bill Ferriter’s “5 Lessons for the Student Teachers In Your Lives:”

“18 years in and I still feel like I have so much to learn. As a beginning teacher I had such an idealistic view – I always knew I wanted to teach in schools that served lower socioeconomic students and I thought I would change their world – I watched ALL the teacher movies – “Dangerous Minds”, ‘Stand and Deliver”, “Lean on Me”, “Freedom Writers”, etc. I thought and said, more times than I care to remember, “Education is your ticket out.”

Can you imagine hearing that as a kid? What was I thinking? Was I really suggesting being educated was more important than the connections the kids had with their family, friends, community? Or worse, that being educated meant you had to leave behind the life and people that matter most? It’s really horrifying isn’t it? I was so ignorant.

Now, all these years later, I focus my efforts on connecting with the families, visiting the community – entering as a learner – seeking to understand by asking questions and truly listening. I try to live by Maya Angelou’s words “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I don’t succeed everyday but I am trying.”

I, too, am trying to learn & reflect as much as I can & come to know better so that once I return to the classroom, I can do better.

Of course, all this isn’t to suggest that all our kids’ home situations are ideal; far from it. But the point is that every family benefits when we focus on learning how we might support them, “seeking to understand by asking questions and truly listening.”

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I Was An Interventions Kid

I was an interventions kid.

I was recommended for a program designed to teach “refusal skills.”

I was pulled from my elementary school classroom to talk to police officers.

I was interviewed by my counselor on a regular basis–though I thought at the time that was just because she liked playing board games.

I was an interventions kid.

Though I didn’t know the name until after starting teaching, my higher-than average Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score is one of the reasons I became a teacher. I knew I wanted to be there for other kids navigating tumultuous terrain. The more I learn about just how pervasive ACE’s are, and their profound impact on health over a lifetime, the more convinced I become that teachers everywhere must become deeply familiar with them. 

Where can we start?

 

We can begin by recognizing the seriousness of the issue.

NPR shared this graphic to illustrate some of the many health risks associated with ACEs:

According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences — ACE — study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for various health problems later.

As Dr. Nadia Burke Harris points out in her excellent Ted Talk  below,

“Some people looked at this data and they said, “Come on. You have a rough childhood, you’re more likely to drink and smoke and do all these things that are going to ruin your health. This isn’t science. This is just bad behavior.”

It turns out this is exactly where the science comes in. We now understand better than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children…there are real neurological reasons why folks exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior…

But it turns out that even if you don’t engage in any high-risk behavior, you’re still more likely to develop heart disease or cancer.”

We can work to identify & discuss how it is impacting our local community. 

Here in my state, we are currently facing a youth suicide crisis that has school leaders at a loss. They are desperately searching out better prevention programs and better research to identify warning signs. As we look for answers, I hope that we look to better understand the role of childhood trauma. After all, “An expanding body of research suggests that childhood trauma and adverse experiences can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes, including attempted suicide among adolescents and adults” (source); a person with a score of 4 is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than a person with an ACE score of 0.  And that rate continues to climb with higher ACE scores.

We can reframe our mindsets regarding student behavior.

We can challenge the assumption that kids’ poor behavior is always intentional, willful, or personal. As Stuart Shanker writes in Self Reg:

“The concept of misbehavior is fundamentally tied to those of volitionchoice, and awareness. It assumes that the child willingly chose to act the way he did. He could have acted differently, was even aware that he should have acted differently. But stress behavior is physiologically based. When this happens, the child is not deliberately choosing his actions or aware in a rational way of what he’s doing…because his nervous system, triggered by a sense of threat, shifts to fight or flight. There are some simple ways to gauge when we’re dealing with misbehavior. Ask the child why he did such and such, and if he answers with any explanation — no matter what his rationale — there’s a pretty good chance he knew what he was doing. Or ask him to tell you with a straight face that he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. Stress behavior also reveals itself quickly. If you see confusion, fear, anger, or deep distress in that face, if your child averts his eyes or finds it hard to even just look at you, those are often signs of hyperarousal and of stress behavior.”

Kids who have experienced trauma are often in what is known as “toxic stress.” Of course, this does not mean we give them license for poor behavior, but it does mean we can take an understanding-driven stance (see this excellent example which takes a look at when we choose to focus on routine and compliance vs dialogue and compassion).

We can cultivate an environment where kids feel safe. This includes maintaining a sense of normalcy, cultivating self-regulatory skills (art, mindfulness, etc.) & building resilience by helping them to identify their strengths & to develop confidence in using those strengths for problem-solving.

This is especially important because even for kids who have high ACE scores, positive influences can still make a profound impact. As the earlier-mentioned NPR article states:

Remember this, too: ACE scores don’t tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma, psychologists say.

Below are some concrete resources you can apply today in these efforts.

We can own our own trauma.

For the many of us (67%) that have at least 1 ACE, owning our stories and offering our kids hope can be powerful.

I can turn the fact that I was an interventions kid — the ugliest aspects of my childhood — into something beautiful. Indeed, I’m grateful for the fact that when I had a student tell me her parents were splitting up, I could look her in the eye and tell her that it can be ok — not the chipper pep talk of “everything will be ok,” but a glimmer of hope that someone they trust has been there, too, and knows it isn’t necessarily all over.

I’ll close with another of Nadia Harris Burke’s statements from her Ted Talk: “The science is clear. Early adversity dramatically affects health across a lifetime. Today we are beginning to understand how to interrupt the progression from early adversity to disease and early death…This is treatable. This is beatable. The single most important thing we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say, “This is real and this is all of us.” I believe that we are the movement.”

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

I Am Driven

My friend, Faige Meller, wrote this week on how she is driven. Her words have inspired me to consider what drives me right now!

I am currently about halfway through my “longterm sabbatical” from teaching as I’m home to raise our little ones  until they are at school. I’m amazed how fast the time has whipped by since the day I was put on bed rest, but I know that by the time I return to the classroom, much will have changed in the education world. Blogging and tweeting have been privileges for me to stay involved, but I’m also grateful for this unique phase of my life during which I have more time to take action in my community. For me, these opportunities all blend together to help me grow as a parent, teacher, citizen, and person.

And I, too, am driven.

I am driven to never stop learning.

I am driven toward authenticity.

I am driven to identify practices that put learning in the hands of — learners.

I am driven to learn how to empower kids to become powerful 21st century citizens and healthy self-regulated human beings.

I am driven to learn more about my community so I’m better prepared to serve them when I return to the classroom.

I am driven to model the very kinds of design thinking and action that I hope to see in my students (both my current very small ones and my future classroom ones).

I am driven to stay current with quality children’s literature so I can give timely recommendations and cultivate myself as a reader.

I am driven to share thought-provoking resources to help current classroom teachers inspire wonder and meaning in their students.

I am driven to always be able to say with confidence, “I am a teacher!” AND “I am a learner!”

What drives you?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto