The Magic of “You Can”

In an article on TED-Ed clubs this last summer, one tip particularly stood out to me:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

On the same day I read the article, I had also read about a boy who has invented a small device intended to save babies accidentally left behind in hot cars.

It’s clear from this video that this is a child who is told “you can” on a regular basis in a loving environment. But what if he weren’t?

The naysayers in Facebook comments on this story were abundant, insisting that this idea would just encourage lazy parents, or that it would be futile against extreme heat anyway. And while many of these people are just exhibiting the unfortunate behavior typical of those who don’t see themselves as digital citizens (ie, they enjoying the roles of anonymity, consumption, and sidelines over authenticity, contribution, and involvement), they completely miss the beautiful picture here:

A 10 year-old child has actually devised a prototype in an attempt to better the world around him!

It still makes me wonder, how often do we, as the grown-ups, shut down our kids’ ideas, though they might have potential for brilliance? With my own children, I know I can sometimes have a much greater tendency toward anticipating the mess and the the improbability and the disappointment.

The point is, even if there is validity in our grown-up criticisms (it will take forever to clean up; it won’t help as many people as you think; it will be way slower to do it your way), when a child exhibits any kind of enthusiasm, compassion, and initiative, do we really want to shut that down?

So again, I remind myself:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

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My Top 5 Defining Teaching Moments

Jonathan So recently had the brilliant idea to share his “top 5 defining teaching moments.” I love the opportunity to reflect, so I’d like to share mine as well. Obviously, I have much less experience — only 4 years of teaching, and 3 years into my longterm leave to raise our little ones — but even in that short time, I have become acquainted with certain people, practices, and ideologies that have thoroughly and beautifully challenged my thinking.

#1: Edna Sackson’s WhatEdSaid: The first clear “defining moment” was coming across Edna Sackson’s blog. With eloquent simplicity, especially in her “10 ways posts” she helped me identify practices that were actually standing in the way of learning, including, but not limited to “playing guess what’s in my head,” talking too much, and focusing on control. She also helped me better understand what student ownership, inquiry, and “flattened” classroom walls look like. Just goes to show that even oceans apart, we can make a profound impact on one another as teachers!

#2: Brene Brown & Daring Greatly: I read this book in 2013 and can honestly say that it changed me, both as a teacher and as a person. I recognized that I was harboring all kinds of shame stories, scarcity mindsets (“not enough”), and vulnerability armor. And once I learned to recognize and dismantle these in myself through vulnerability, self-compassion, and imperfection, I started to recognize them in my own students. I immediately printed (with color ink, mind — you know a teacher means business to have something printed in color) and posted in my classroom her leadership manifesto and engaged feedback checklist, sharing with my students my journey toward greater authenticity and vulnerability.

#3: Learning the principle of modeling: Once I really started getting the hang of that vulnerability stuff, I was able to better understand what real, authentic modeling looks like and can do for student learning/relationships. Not only did I learn cultivate the more vulnerable sides of my own learning (such as creativity), but together with my students, we were able to attain a richness and depth in our writing, reading, math, and in everything else that I had not yet witnessed.

#4: When a parent shared with me years later the impact of poetry on her son. I had heard other teachers share the gratification of having an old student or their parents come back to share thanks at some point down the road. But when I experienced it, it was much more than a sense of gratification — it was unshakable evidence that when we make meaning the priority, it has longterm significance. This parent shared that her son had been so moved by our 5th grade analysis of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou that he had performed a recitation of it in high school. So it was with great joy last spring when I had the opportunity to attend his school’s Poetry Out Loud competition to watch him perform it in person.

#5: Recognizing the value of my voice as a classroom-less teacher. I started blogging shortly after being put on unexpected bedrest. For the first long while, I struggled believing that any educator would really want to read reflections from a teacher that wasn’t actually in the classroom. I even had trouble telling people “I am a teacher” in present tense, because, stripped of my classroom and precious students, I felt like an impostor.

But ever since an epiphany a year ago that helped me better organize my blogging efforts, I have been able to more clearly see my contributions, and to better accept and love my current role (especially as a #TeacherMom with my current, very small students). And this is why, when teachers share ways my words are actually influencing their classrooms/students, I am profoundly grateful because it reminds me that we can reach students in more than one way:

In the course of my blogging/PLN-growing, I have learned about so many other practices that also have the potential to be “defining moments,” but many of them will have to wait for full impact until I’m back in the classroom. So meanwhile, I will keep learning, blogging, and sharing (repeat) in the hopes that my thinking will become more refined and able to bring those practices to light for future students!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto 

Why I Told My Students I Hated Science

I hated science as a kid. I got tangled up in all the instructions. I could never seem to keep all the “-osis” lingo straight. My biology course was the worst grade I received in college (though I still blame that on my husband since that was the semester we met…). Most of all, I just found most of it to be, dare I say it, boring.

Then, I became a fifth grade teacher. Our science curriculum included chemical/physical changes, geological changes in earth’s surface, genetics/adaptation, magnetism, and static/current electricity.

And for the first time, I LOVED it.

I geeked out over our chemistry experiments.

I discovered just how unique the geology of our state is and told my students that geologists all over the globe are jealous.

I played with our magnet sets.

I found myself fascinated by the survival traits and adaptations of animals everywhere I went — actually paying attention to those little plaques at zoos and aquariums.

I started thinking about lightning and static-y socks in terms of electrons.

The very thought of my students missing out on the wonder of it all was more than I could stand. So I shared that wonder every chance I could; but I also told them it wasn’t always that way for me. Why?

Because I wanted them to understand that love of learning is intentional. I wanted them to see what a shift in mindset looks like. And I wanted to let them know that if they found the subject matter dull, we could uncover the wonder together — because I’d been there, too.

Ultimately, helping our students connect with curricula is as much a matter of vulnerable relationship-building than anything else. We need to help them see us in our honest learning journeys if we are to show them how to navigate theirs.

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4 Reasons We Just Can’t Break Up with Basals (& How to Finally Move On)

The typical basal-reading program lesson frequently boils down to something like this:

  • Assigned shared text read aloud.
  • Definitions of carefully-bolded vocabulary words copied down.
  • Comprehension worksheets filled out.
  • Students and teachers alike feeling bored to tears.

The truth is, putting kids through this kind of soul-less exercise will produce authentic readers no more than the mastery of connect-the-dots sheets will produce artists.

And we know it. Master teachers refer to the need to “finesse and hybridize” basals to make sure they’re effective. ¹ (which also makes basals’ claims at “research-based effectiveness” shaky since there’s real possibility they take credit for master teachers’ adjustments).

There are so many other ways to help our students develop the reading skills they need while protecting and nurturing their love of reading. Here are a few of the messages I believe we keep getting from basal program companies to convince us otherwise.

#1: Inexperienced teachers need me!

Basals assert that new teachers won’t be able to navigate the waters of literacy instruction without their careful direction. However, if our solution for offering literacy support to new teachers is to let them muddle through a sub-par program, we’re doing a disservice to both our teachers and our students.

Furthermore, even with all the details of a basal program (many of which supply ideas for differentiation, activating background knowledge, etc), “only a well-trained teacher can make the multifaceted decisions involved in developing such instruction”² anyway. Outsourcing this training to a one-size fits all manual is simply inadequate.

P.S. Going basal-free doesn’t mean you have to/should abandon a framework. One phenomenal example is a a workshop framework by Pam Allyn that I reviewed a couple years ago.

#2: You can’t be sure students will develop skills without my guidance.

In a workshop/units of study model, not only do students develop literacy skills, but they do so with a greater degree of context and response to the ongoing trajectory of student learning.

Meanwhile, basal programs tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time drilling specific skills, such as the ones involved in reading comprehension. Consider this:

“It is critical to note that these and other reading programs allocate as much or more actual time to rehearsing comprehension skills than they allocate to teaching any other element in their language-arts program…In reality, when children experience problems comprehending text, it is much more likely due to the child’s lack of knowledge of the subject matter…The notion that we can teach students a set of skills that they will be able to apply to new and unfamiliar texts or situations is a process that cognitive psychologists call “skills transference.” This is regarded as an inordinately difficult task for our brains to pull off and, therefore, is not a practical educational goal. But it is a goal set forward by every major reading program on the market.”³

In addition, even if students develop said skills, if they never apply them because all those basal worksheets suffocated their love of reading, what’s the point? As educator Ross Cooper wrote, “First and foremost, we must promote a love of reading, not a culture of literacy-based micromanagement.4

#3: You won’t have ready access to ability-appropriate text!

Twenty years ago, this may have been the case. But just consider this small sampling of today’s possibilities:

  • Shared texts via projectors/document cameras
  • Newsela (engaging, level-able text at the click of a button)
  • Wonderopolis (text based on “more than 90,000 Wonder questions submitted by users” and differentiation features such as selected-text-to-audio and hover-to-define-vocabulary)
  • DOGO (kid-friendly news that’s also leveled at the click of a button and includes assignments, vocab, and Google Classroom integration)
  • Savvy multimedia librarians that can help identify/pull relevant texts during the immersion phase of units.

#4: You won’t have as much time without me to meet students’ individual needs!

Basal models assume that most kids’ learning takes place right at the top of the bell curve, with “differentiation tips” for the few kids on either side of the curve. But the truth is, every journey is unique. The sooner we disentangle ourselves from all the micromanaged requirements of a basal, the sooner we can spend our time where it really counts: 1-1 conferences, responsive mini-lessons, mentor text studies, student ownership/agency, etc.

No matter what promises are made to the contrary, we need to remember that “there’s no simple solution, no panacea, or miracle cure for reading. The range of ways to solve reading achievement challenges is as broad as the range of student profiles.”²

Sources:

1. http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1507&context=ehd_theses

2. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2009/J-F_p26.pdf

3. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Basal_readers.pdf

4. http://www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/3-reasons-to-rethink-your-basal-reader

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Choosing Courage Over Fear

It’s now been over three years since I’ve been in the classroom. Three years. And while I miss being in the classroom, I can honestly say that thanks to the many incredible teachers in my PLN, not a day has passed that I haven’t learned more about how to return to the classroom a better teacher.

A powerful example came recently when I read this thought-provoking post from my friend Abe (@Arbay38). One of his comments perfectly articulated one of my fears of shifting toward more student voice, choice and ownership:


The rest of his post greatly assuaged this fear, but I’ve continued to reflect on this question over the past couple of weeks. But then, he shared something else on Twitter — something so profound, that I think I can finally put this fear completely to rest:


This child has reminded me once and for all that the bottom line is doing what’s best for kids. Withholding opportunities for autonomy now for fear of future constraints is like refusing to build the ship for fear of future rough waters.

Isn’t the possibility that they may not experience this kind of autonomy in future classrooms all the more reason to help them cultivate it now? To help them reflect now why it matters, and how they’ll respond to its absence in the future?

Our students deserve the very best we can offer right now. And as we regularly ask them to choose courage over fear through risk-taking and the growth mindset, we can be the first to model that back: choosing courage over fear.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Thinking About Those Reading Minutes & Logs

I recently came across a tweet via Mr Moon on “Why Your Child Can’t Skip Their 20 Minutes of Reading Tonight:”


And I promise that MOSTLY, I agree with the conclusion here. EXCEPT…

…what if James’ 28,800 minutes came kicking and screaming (or even just half of those minutes)?

…what if the reason for Travis’ scant minutes is that he got burnt out by the end of 2nd grade from having to log them, day in and day out?

I’m not saying that Travis is better off here. Obviously, he’s going to get behind.

What I’m saying is that when we rely too heavily on those minutes, we might miss the bigger picture: cultivating the kind of authentic love of reading that will benefit them over a lifetime.

Pernille Ripp has written some excellent posts on the topic, encouraging teachers to be conscious of open communication with students and parents, differentiation, and promoting the intrinsic value of the reading itself over extrinsic motivators.

I have spoken with parents who have expressed concern that their child used to love reading, but that the daily fight brought on by marking minutes and titles and signatures had left  in its wake resentment and avoidance of reading. Of course, this is the worst-case scenario outcome — but as one who once assigned reading logs myself, it does make me wonder: are reading logs worth that kind of risk?

So yes, do what you can to help your child pack in those precious minutes of reading. But do it with care to ensure they stay a treasure to our readers.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

 

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