On A Sustainable School Year: An Open Letter to Parents I Wish I’d Sent

Dear Parents,

The year is still shiny and new. We’re feeling refreshed after the summer break, and ready to tackle a new year. In your renewal, you may be feeling tempted to sign up for all the programs and pack all the cute lunches and be all the things.

As teachers, we get it. We feel determined to apply for all the grants and find all the flexible seating and be all the buzz words.

And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do our best for those kids, especially when we feel like we have energy to spare.

But the truth for us all is, as any long distance runner will tell you, starting off at a sprint is just not sustainable. The crash will come, and if you’ve poured in all the energy at the beginning of the year, the crash will be swift and complete.

My personal favorite illustration of this burn-out effect was Jen Hatmaker’s hilarious blog post a few years back:

“[husband] Brandon: “You don’t have to do all that, you know. Just blow it off.”

Me, staring blankly:

“Well, what a lovely thought you’re having there in your brain. How nice for you to be thinking that thought. I want to live in your imaginary world where my failure to do the School Stuff doesn’t mean our kid is the only one not wearing a purple shirt or didn’t have his pictures in the slideshow or didn’t bring in a handmade card for his teacher like every other student. I’ll just ‘blow it off’ and our kids can work it out with their therapists later.”

If we start out feeling like we have to do it all, and do it all perfectly, I will be astonished if any of us make it to the New Year.

This year, let’s set a more sustainable pace from the start. The same blogger posted last Christmas about “Big Day Sabotage,” with suggestions on how to return to a calmer, healthier holiday season, like lowering stimulation, avoiding over-scheduling, casting a simple, manageable vision, and talking about big feelings. These tips absolutely apply to sustainability here as well. Here are a few more to consider:

Be mindful of pace, for your child, for yourself, and for your family. Talk with your students about how they are feeling, talk to them about how you are feeling, and share those feelings with me. While I can’t be all things to all people, I am happy to accommodate your needs the best I can.

Don’t be afraid to opt out. It’s not laziness to opt out of a program or event that doesn’t work for your child or your family. Read about the time I opted out of what I’m sure was a lovely home reading program here.

Work more on your culture of agency than on perfecting details. Instead of trying “keep up” with the level of involvement you might perceive from other kids and their families, focus your energy on letting your child take the reins. If it’s important to her to look like an amazing Amelia Earhart for the wax museum, don’t make it the default for you to do all the work — teach skills like sewing, planning shopping lists, or calling the school office to check for available butcher paper or old cardboard boxes. And be ok with what will inevitably be a messy rendition. (other ideas for a culture of agency at home here).

Stay in touch regarding your needs! I remember when a parent told me that her child had been spending hours on math homework each night. By the time she talked to me, they had clearly been maxed out for some time, and my heart sank — new teacher that I was, it never occurred to me that any of my students would be pouring in that much time on the work I had assigned. I was happy to have the chance to set it straight then, and I learned for the future that I need to consult parents much more thoroughly regarding homework moving forward.

Meanwhile, I will work toward greater sustainability as well by seeking out student voice, putting learning in students hands, and managing self-care.

Let’s work together, not just to “make it,” but to approach learning at a pace and tone that will be sustainable this year, and for many joyful years to come.

Thanks,

Mary Wade

Let’s Preserve the Complexity of Our Icons

A phrase that stood out to me most from reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me” was:

“We seem to feel that a person like Helen Keller can be an inspiration only so long as she remains uncontroversial, one-dimensional. We don’t want complicated icons.”

This was the chapter where I also learned that Helen Keller was a socialist — and indeed, that it was so much a part of her adult life, that it’s truly shocking that most of us never learn this fact in our history books.

I own one of the “Value Tales” biographies of Helen Keller, the very theme of which is “The Value of Determination.” While I certainly want my kids to be inspired by her determination, I also want them to learn about her complex activism and beliefs, and to form their own conclusions. She wrote:

“I had once believed that we were all masters of our fate — that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased…I had overcome deafness and blindness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life’s struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment…Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.”

It is truly an injustice to our students to assert that people can only be inspirational if they are essentially perfect.

Unjust because it creates a false sense of unattainable achievement (“only those kinds of saint-like people make a difference”).

Unjust because it conveys that we don’t trust them with complicated truths.

Unjust because it’s the kind of rhetoric that fuels partisan politics and the idea that people are only worthwhile if their views 100% align with our own.

Let’s trust our students enough to trust them with truth. To create spaces where they can sort through difficult topics. To encourage them to form their own conclusions and realize that all people are messy, with strengths and failings. Let’s preserve the complexity of our icons.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

When Not Everyone Is Inspired by Your Inspiration

My first year of college, I enrolled in a freshman support group of sorts. One of the requirements was to take a student development course on building a sense of community. The main mentor text in this endeavor was Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks.

Seems innocuous enough, right? I really like Paul Fleischman, too. But I hated that course, and as a result, I also disliked the book.

Looking back, I can more clearly pinpoint why. It was the pressure to conform, to pretend inspiration in order to feel a sense of belonging.

Sometimes, an approach, text, or training might dazzle most but not all; when that happens, does it lead to blame or shame or even exclusion? Are labels applied like “not a team player” or “not fully invested,” when the truth sounds more like, “Still thinking about this application” or “Stressed about my massive inbox right now.”

This applies just as much for teachers during professional development as it does for students during back-to-school icebreaker games.

Adding a large dose of agency to our approach (actual agency, not the pretend kind — a concept that Doug Robertson nailed in a post a few months ago), is a great way to move away from this sense of in-group/out-group. It also conveys that you trust teachers and students to find their unique way forward, which ultimately leads to greater success.

“It’s great to be successful. It’s even better to make sure you followed your own distinctive, and not necessarily always obvious, path to the success that can truly fulfill you.”

How we can show our teachers and students that we are as open-minded as we hope they will be? How can we help co-define & construct success? How can we promote an atmosphere of agency in our learning?

A few resources below might provide some ideas to help all participants find inspiration!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

On Valuing Teacher Humanity

It was the end of lunchtime. I finished up in the teacher’s lounge and was just about to head up to my classroom when I suddenly had to run to the bathroom.

After a long journey of trying to conceive, multiple rounds of fertility treatments, and finally a positive pregnancy test — I felt sure I was losing that baby.

The details of all that followed are a bit of a blur. I managed to get someone to cover my class as my kids returned from lunch, managed to get down to the office to explain why I had to leave.

But what will forever remain clear in my memory was the compassion of my principal, Kathy Watson. She listened as I sobbed. She held my hands, hugged me, reassured me that I could take all the time I needed.

Equally precious was what she did not do. She didn’t bring up sub plans, she didn’t hint at a meeting she was probably late for, she didn’t remind me of leave policies, and she didn’t try to minimize my pain in any way. I knew that in that moment of crisis, nothing was more important than her being there for me.

In short, she valued my humanity as a teacher and as a human being.

I wish valuing teachers’ humanity is something we could all take for granted. But somehow, as we wave our banners for what’s best for students, sometimes what’s best for teachers gets forgotten. A sad recent example (with many more in the thread):

When I was a class-teacher my son was rushed into hospital. It was touch and go.

As in many instances when I’m writing about something vulnerable, I’m reminded of something author Brene Brown wrote:

What I’ve also learned from Brene’s work is that it’s impossible to be selective about our empathy. We cannot profess to have empathy for our students and then deny it for our teachers. We need to find ways to let all those around us with whom we would like to make meaningful connections that they are not alone, that we are with them in the arena, too.

I am grateful to report that after a couple of dark weeks, we found that the baby’s heart was still beating. My son is a thriving 4 year-old today. I am also grateful to have had the chance to experience such empathy from my principal. Both are precious moments I will carry with me for a lifetime.

What are ways we can show teachers we value their humanity even when especially if it throws a wrench into plans? How does modeling this kind of empathy impact our students and their learning?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

A Mid-Year Reflection on My Unusual #OneWord2018: Power

I have not forgotten my one word goal for 2018. But I’ve noticed that I don’t talk about it with other people the way I’ve talked about other one word goals I’ve made. Because even though it has proven a fascinating and wonderfully challenging goal, the statement I shared at the beginning of the year is still true:

The word power itself is sort of this dirty word. We don’t like to talk about it, we don’t like to name it–it seems unseemly. And yet, if you don’t understand how power works–what it is, how it flows, who has access to it, who does not–you are essentially being acted upon.”

In this brief mid-year reflection, I realize that I need to talk about this goal, too. Not only because my growth thus far is in no way less valuable than other goals, but because I believe it’s important to have more productive conversations about power. Conversations that are entwined with agency and citizenship.

Here are some of the places this goal has taken me so far this year:

  • Joining our local bicycle committee
  • Creating a 10-page local bike parking guide including education, a discount I’ve secured with a bike rack company, and recommendations/specs
  • Leading an active transportation tour with elected officials
  • Reading our city’s General Plan, & otherwise learning more about the direction our city is headed (or hoping to head)
  • Submitting digital feedback on local policy issues for the first time
  • Attending city meetings for the first time
  • Speaking before the City Council and Planning Commission
  • Joining the PTA board for our local school
  • Starting weekly bike ride for moms
  • Creating and sharing graphics across city social media pages (examples below)

Some of these have had more community impact than others, but that’s not the important part of my goal. What’s important is that all of them have made a profound impact on me and on my family. I am learning so much about a community I love dearly, and have started to see how I can better be of service. My kids are learning more about how our city works and how we can get to know our neighbors.

I hope that as I continue to learn and grow this year, I will continue to gain lessons that I can also carry with me into the classroom to help my students to better understand their own power within our community (agency), and to take meaningful, relevant action (citizenship).

We have more power than we think!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

On Rewards

We talked quietly in the corner. His 10 year-old head hung. He knew that had been a hurtful choice, knew that it had been a series of uncharacteristically unkind choices as of late. We talked about what might be going on lately. He said he didn’t know.

I told him that sometimes teachers use rewards to help their kids make better choices. I asked him, “Do you think we need to set up some kind of reward system for you to make better choices? Or do you think you can go ahead and step up to the kinds of choices we both know you can make?”

His eyes widened, and he replied, “I know I can make better choices.”

And he did. For the rest of the year.

Truly, if he had said he needed some kind of reward system, I would have honored that. Not because I think that such extrinsic rewards are particularly effective, or that they should be applied by and large. But because it might have served as a temporary scaffold.

But for longterm motivation and behavior, I have come to question more and more the place of tangible rewards in the classroom. We’ve seen studies that indicate that rewards actually make the behavior less desirable for kids. And we have seen the remarkable impact of self-efficacy on learning as kids develop specific skills that in turn help them believe in their innate ability to achieve goals.

Even as my critical position on rewards has grown stronger over the years, I appreciate articles like this that add more nuance to the conversation:

“Some people say, “[Offering incentives for reading] should be off the table,” or “This is terrible.” I wouldn’t go that far, just because I’m always a little uncomfortable pretending that psychologists have the absolute answer to anything. My recommendation is, maybe don’t try it first.”

When I unpack statements like this a little more, it makes me think of scenarios like the conversation I described above. I once had a similar conversation with another student who did indicate that having a reward system for a brief time would be helpful to reroute the behavior. As I stated earlier, it was a temporary scaffold, and it was ultimately effective to help him bring his attention to his choices.

So, yes, I’m still wary of incentives systems that might place a child’s attention on treats & stickers over the learning & self-awareness, particularly over longterm use. But I’m working on remaining curious as I continue to learn and assess my past practices to inform my future ones.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Problem With Our Early Reading Obsession

When I write about how my daughter is succeeding as a reader even though (or because?) I did not force sight word flashcards or memorizing the alphabet on her as a preschooler, my thinking inevitably returns to readers we would term “at-risk” because of their sorely limited book access.

I wonder if my talk of autonomy and following the child’s lead and student choice & voice are another facet of our privilege, overlooking the needs of kids that need to “catch up” with their peers? Is my priority to cultivate the reader over the reading level potentially damaging for these children?

But this question, and all initiatives out there that insist every child must read by a certain level by age fill-in-the-blank (usually implemented in areas with higher number of at-risk kids), leads to a rather slippery slope with regards to development & choice. We must be wary of practices that suggest that honoring developmental readiness is only reserved for children of a certain class.

This wariness should become sharper when we are faced with programs that overshadow books themselves. When programs > books, we run into equity issues every time because only the kids that quickly finish up their program assignment get time to simply read books of their choosing (Matthew Effect, anyone?)

So, how do we…

…work to eliminate the reading ability gap our low-income students face while still honoring developmental readiness and choice?

…seek out accountability that all students are receiving high quality reading instruction while also avoiding silver bullet programs that promise guarantees?

…ensure that in our zeal to help them find words, we do not allow our anxious agendas to swallow up their voices & choices?

Even as we work to identify diverse literary needs and developmental readiness, we can find a more joyful, inviting reading community for all as we focus more on nurturing readers & cultures than on pushing reading levels.

“For too long we have focused on the development of reading for skills, not for the love of reading.  Yet, we need both types of experiences in order to fully develop as readers.” ~Pernille Ripp

(so many practical ideas from Pernille on establishing that culture in her post).

For our early readers, we seem to have been especially caught up in the skills side of reading. We need to stop packing in skills so tightly that they crowd out reading itself.

As Donalyn Miller recently summed up,

Each and every one of our early readers deserve librarians just as much as they deserve high-quality reading specialists. They deserve books in their hands just as much as they deserve guided reading groups. And they deserve teachers who share their authentic love of reading just as much as they deserve teachers who effectively build decoding skills.

It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by fear of kids falling behind. But when we start from a place of love of the reading instead of fear, we ultimately lay a literary foundation that is much more lasting and meaningful for all our readers.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto