The Lesson I’ve Never Forgotten From a Parent’s Gentle Rebuke

Opening the door wide open for parent communication can sometimes be a scary thing — fear of the unknown, previous negative experiences, and limitations on time can all add up to create some understandable hesitation.

But each time I have chosen to lay aside these fears, I have always gained — not only in the way of building bridges with parents, but in learning how to improve my practices.

Here’s one example that has stuck with me:

A month into the school year, I started sending emails to all my students’ parents to touch bases, provide encouragement, and to build rapport.

To one of my student’s parents, I sent praise of her willingness to “be an example,” to “stay on task and participate,” and to “step out of her comfort zone to offer ideas” (as she was one of my quieter students).

I hit send and didn’t think twice — until I read her dad’s response:

“This is very helpful. Thank you for taking time with her. She really is a bright young lady. As an extra note, she has some real strength in analyzing math, science and comprehension. It seems that your approach will really reenergize her confidence in these learning skills.”

I never will know for sure whether her dad even intended this as any kind of rebuke, but that was certainly how it translated for me, and rightly so. For I had been so content with how compliant and agreeable his daughter was, I had overlooked her much more powerful strengths.

This father’s gracious response has stayed with me ever since. It stands as a reminder that we owe it to our students to dig deeper to help them uncover their passion, their power, their potential.

While we’re grateful for our students that don’t feel the need to violently rock the boat day in and day out, sometimes, their very lack of any boat-rocking can be cause for concern. We should dedicate time toward finding out why they are content to hide in the shadows, just as we dedicate time toward working with our regular boat-rockers on how to funnel their efforts more appropriately.

So keep sending those emails to parents. Keep searching out feedback. After all, the ones who benefit most from our doing so are our students.

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5 Reasons To Prioritize Relationships Over Content

It is the relationships that separates schools, not the content.” 

What makes the above statement from George Couros true? What makes the quality of relationships within a school so defining?

1. Content is available everywhere: Khan Academy, Google, tutoring software. Our secret weapon as teachers is our rapport and responsiveness to students’ needs. As such, we should challenge anything that seeks to twist our role from responsive guides to automated deliverers (we must remain agents that purposely wield the textbooks, tech, etc. to meet students needs — and not become pawns being acted upon by such resources).

2.Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” If you have somehow missed the phenomenally inspiring video from Rita Pierson, you’ve got to check it out. Our students will remember the way they were treated in our classrooms for far longer than any clever science lesson or math worksheet. While 180 days may seem long, if you do the math of an average class of 25-30 students, that only gives us 6-7 days per student to prove to them that they matter and belong in our classrooms.

3. It improves classroom management, which in turn increases time for learning. Edutopia recently shared an article based on 700 teacher responses on “5 Principles of Outstanding Classroom Management.” Guess what was on that list of top 5? Yep, building relationships. And when those relationships are secure, when they know they are seen and heard and belong, they are more willing to trust us as we guide them toward their learning.

4. It improves our modeling efforts. If we want our students to see themselves as readers, as writers, and mathematicians, as scientists, we need to model what exactly that looks like. As Lucy Calkins writes in her 10 Essentials of Reading Instruction, “Learners need teachers who demonstrate what it means to live richly literate lives, wearing a love of reading on their sleeves. Teachers need professional development and a culture of collaborative practice to develop their abilities to teach.” Such modeling is only successful if students have a desire to exemplify what we demonstrate, and that only comes through strong relationships.

5. It creates an atmosphere of greater authenticity. Especially for our students who struggle against “the game of school,” changing the rules by focusing on people first is powerful. Our students start to learn to trust that they can truly show up for the learning each day, because they will be seen and valued.

What are reasons you have found to justify the time required for prioritizing relationships?

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Balancing Reading Challenge With Choice

It was another day of library time in fourth grade. Most of my classmates headed to the fiction section. A few dared the dark musty nonfiction corner (I still have no idea why it was always so poorly lit in that corner!). And I went for the picture books. I just couldn’t get enough of the pictures, and I certainly didn’t have the patience to spend 20 minutes reading just one page.

So it had gone week in and week out — until that momentous day that my sweet librarian, Mrs. Lutz, chose to intervene. She had apparently noticed my quiet reading habits, and chose to step in to offer a challenge. And what could easily have turned me off from reading instead launched me into the world of children’s fiction and deepened my self-identity as a reader.

How did she strike that careful balance of providing challenge without judgement?

Here’s what she did not do:

  • Tell me the books I was reading were babyish or below my level.
  • Prevent me from reading books of my choice.

Here’s what she did do:

  • Listened to what kept me coming back to the picture books (the pictures, of course).
  • Shared some books that she loved (that conveniently included some pictures).
  • Encouraged me to keep stretching my reading muscles.

It can seem an impossible task to help our students stretch themselves while simultaneously honoring their choices. And while choice should ultimately take precedence for their personal reading, finding this balance can help students expand their view of literary possibilities.

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5 What If’s to Finish Friday Strong

What if…

…today, we increased our efforts in helping students see that they matter?

…what if, today, we found ways to help them see themselves as mathematicians, readers, writers, scientists (rather than kids who do all those things)?

…what if, today, we found ways to let them know we trust them with choice?

…what if, today, we shared with our students some aspect of our personal, authentic learning experience?

…what if, today, we talked less and listened more?

…what if?

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Inquiry: What Trajectory Are YOU On?

This week, I had the privilege to volunteer at my old school as one of the trainers for professional development day. I was asked to focus one of the workshops on inquiry planning and concept-based instruction in science and social studies. But the more I prepared, the more I realized that when it comes to inquiry, it’s not so much WHAT we do, as much as HOW we APPROACH.

So instead of spending our hour discussing science/social studies-specific ideas, we started off with a personal inquiry inventory, adapted from a couple posts by Kath Murdoch.

click for Kath’s post from which this inventory mainly originated

Next, participants used their inventory responses to determine which area of inquiry they wanted to investigate more.

As participants researched, they were also on the hunt for a sentence-phrase-word that helped them determine the difference between the same science/social studies activity used in a traditional teacher-driven classroom vs. an inquiry, concept-driven classroom.

I loved hearing the conversations, and engaging with participants as their research prompted new wonderings.

As everyone shared their Sentence-Phrase-Words, it led to more fabulous, thought-provoking discussions, such as…

  • …the fact that it’s a sacred trust to protect and cultivate the natural curiosity of our young charges — to not allow “the game of school” to drain that from them.
  • …the fact that everyone is on a different trajectory when it comes to adopting an inquiry approach — it’s not so much about how much of your day is dedicated to an inquiry-based instruction, but rather how consistently.

But by far my favorite part of our workshop was finishing up with “I used to think…Now I know…” sticky notes.

In case you can’t quite read them all in the above photo, I’ll list out the content here, too:

  • I used to think that students need to be taught. Now I know that they need to be guided.
  • I used to think the teacher had to give all the instruction using books, videos, etc. to teach about other cultures and countries. Now I know we can connect with other places in the world and talk with REAL people about their culture and country through technology.
  • I used to think that giving students agency can be scary. Now I know that with the right tools, it isn’t.
  • I used to think that joining curriculum and student-driven inquiry was too difficult to join in the classroom. Now I know it’s possible here as it is anywhere & not as hard as we convince ourselves.
  • I used to think that inquiry was complicated. Now I know we are making it complicated.
  • I used to think that questions were used solely at the beginning of a unit to drive the inquiry. Now I know questions can be a result of the inquiry and lead to more exploration.
  • I used to think inquiry was more work on the teacher. Now I know I need to lend it over to the kids — let them be kids.
  • I used to think that you had to fit everything in your lessons. Now I know that student driven lessons are more effective and fun.
  • I used to think that I always had to have an answer. Now I know that I don’t. Students can discover their answers through their own research.

I should add that thanks to the discussion during this workshop, as well as my continued online learning with teachers around the world, I need to add my own:

  • I used to think that to be an inquiry teacher, we must have students directing the learning 100% of the time. Now I know that it’s more about working toward creating a culture of ownership and curiosity, which can be present even during explicit teacher instruction.

Here are the links to all the research I shared with participants. Thank you so much to the many educators who so freely share their thinking and learning. I learn so much every day because of you! Kath Murdoch, Edna Sackson, Taryn BondClegg, Richard Wells, Sonya Terborg, Aviva Dunsinger, Sam Sherratt, and more.

Questioning:

Classroom culture:

Inquiry cycle for forward-moving planning:

Student-driven planning:

Hunter/Gathering for science/social studies:

Agency:

Focusing on CONCEPTS amid curriculum requirements:

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How My #OneWordGoal Is Going So Far #TeacherMom

You’d think that shortening my New Year’s Resolutions down to just one word would make it a piece of cake. Turns out, it’s not. It is, however, a worthwhile endeavor.

I wrote about my #OneWordGoal of Synthesis last January. I want to revisit it here both as a function of accountability, and to help me reflect on its impact.

The biggest takeaway thus-far is this: there’s more in my life that can complement rather than compete for my energy, time, and resources.

This has broken down into two distinct shifts in mindset:

#1: I used to think that getting “stuck” meant I just needed to dig deeper, work harder, and plow forward with grit. Now I know that most of the time, I simply need to draw from the other wells in my life for the inspiration, strength, or resources I need.

#2: I used to think that committing to even worthwhile opportunities would consume my time. Now I know that, while I still need to be judicious about commitments, the truly meaningful opportunities I engage in turn out to be an investment rather than a drain of my time.

Here are some examples where these shifts have come into play:

Time spent lingering to experiment with the microscope at the library → opportunity to practice letting go as I allowed my daughter to investigate figure out the instrument for herself → opportunity to be reminded of what exactly the wonder of inquiry and learning looks like → opportunity to build my relationship as a parent with my daughter.

investigating what the slick fabric of my jacket might look like

Time attending Jon Klassen & Mac Barnett’s book signing → opportunity to share insight with present and future students about what it’s really like to be an author and illustrator → opportunity for a great blog post (I’ll be blogging more about that fabulous experience soon!)

Time spent reading → opportunity to model to my kids important literacy habits → opportunity to broaden knowledge on quality children’s literature and current research on teaching practices → opportunity to have great conversations with teachers around the world through my PLN.

Focusing on synthesis hasn’t magically given me more time. But it has helped me become better at making connections, noticing opportunities, and applying my learning across all the spheres of my life. I’m looking forward to continuing to focus on this skill, and to start considering my #OneWord2018!

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Where Love & Logic Comes Into “Oppositional” Interactions with Students

In just a couple of weeks, I get to run a Love and Logic workshop at my old school. This has me reflecting on the purpose of the Love and Logic approach, and how it applies during particularly difficult situations.

For example, what do we do when our students actually seem to be getting something out of the opposition with us? One of Seth Godin’s recent posts examines what to do when someone refuses all our efforts to achieve a solution. “It might be, though, that being oppositional is making them happy. It may be that the best way to satisfy their objections is to let them keep objecting.”

Now, when that someone is very young and very stuck in their frustration or poor choice, we can’t very well just say “Fine! Keep being frustrated!” Not only does that kind of response leave everyone upset, but it doesn’t help teach the child better choices. So what options are left to us (especially when we’re not exactly feeling, “Oh, goodie, a learning opportunity!”)?

One of the important rules of Love and Logic is to keep anger, threats, and lecturing out of our communication, because kids actually tend to feed off this entertaining display of adult emotion.

So when a child is being oppositional, here are some Love & Logic strategies that might come into play:

  • Treat both the symptoms and causes.
  • Don’t set yourself up to lose, which includes avoiding making requests for a change in behavior in front of the class — the opportunity to argue on display can be another source that feeds the opposition.
  • Maintain your personal energy levels and feelings of dignity, even when logical consequences aren’t available, through the Energy Drain approach.
  •  Don’t feel like you must come up with a consequence in the very moment of the poor behavior, when emotions are likely running high all the way around. Instead, try Anticipatory Consequences.
  • Rather than engaging in arguments, neutralize them with statements of empathy or “one-liners.” Return to the discussion later when you are both calm and ready to talk.

We all want and need to focus on building the relationship with each child. But if they have become accustomed to argument and defiance, we must also work to help them break habits and understand that you value dignity, both for themselves and yourself. Through it all, work to be genuine and express love and appreciation for each and every child, because that is where any good relationship starts.

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