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.

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The Price of Diminishing (any) Relationships? Our Humanity.

“There’s something powerful and exciting about the society-wide experiment the digital age has thrust upon us.” ~James Estrin, National Geographic

I shared this quote this a few years ago in a post about how the digital age is altering education’s landscape. Today, it returns to mind as I reflect on how this “society-wide experiment” is impacting relationships. I have spent a good deal of time writing about how grateful I am to have the opportunity to make global connections that would never have been a possibility without technological advances.

But there are moments we ought to pause and consider some of the less positive detours this experiment can sometimes lead. Here’s a powerful short video by Matthew Frost that allows such reflection (please note that there is some language).

My question is this: whose humanity was diminished more in this video — Kirsten Dunst’s, or that of the 2 young women?

The moment we start to see anyone as less than a human being and more like an object to be used, or even as a product to be pushed through, we devalue our own humanity.

Of course, this base mentality has been around for much longer than the digital age, but devices, social media, and online anonymity provide a much more varied, efficient, and enticing ways to encourage it.

If there’s ever a time we’re willing to overlook another person’s need for authentic connection, we put our own ability to connect at risk. As the line between our digital and physical worlds become more and more blurred, we can’t hope that such a mindset will stay safely boxed in the moments when we think we have enough digital anonymity.

On the flipside, when we make authenticity and genuine connection a priority in all our interactions, we show that the impact of this digital experiment is to amplify positive connection in both the physical and digital sphere.

It also makes it easier to answer questions that involve the quality of our relationships, whether they are with our family members, our friends, or our students. Regardless of the possible efficiency or increased productivity or raised test scores, if the cost is quality relationships with one another, it is. not. worth it.

It would serve us all to remember that this society-wide digital experiment is, in fact, an experiment, and as such, we should occasionally stop to reflect on how it is shaping our lives.

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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!

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The Price of Putting What’s Best for Teachers over What’s Best for Students

Heart thumping. Throat catching. I want to sink into the floor. I want to dissolve. One by one, students call out their math quiz scores as my teacher records them in her gradebook. My last name is toward the beginning of the alphabet; my abysmal score will stand out in burning contrast to all the other acceptable scores that come after me.

Mine is never acceptable.

I feel the shame of my teacher’s disapproval.

I feel the humiliation of my classmates’ incredulity.

I feel the weight of the growing belief that I. don’t. belong. 

Day after day, I spent that entire year of elementary school in a sickened panic. I doubt my teacher possessed malicious intent toward me. Perhaps she even hoped that this strategy would help free up her time to better reach her students in other ways.

But put into practice, it served her convenience as a teacher more than my needs as a student.

And as a result, I spent every day, and many years thereafter, believing that she simply despised me. So all-encompassing was that fear and shame, I honestly doubt I was able to absorb much in the way of learning that year.

Now, at first glance, this may seem an extreme example. But here’s the thing: we never know how our kids are internalizing their surroundings; they might be unable as of yet to articulate their feelings even for themselves. With all their personal experiences and circumstances, students often respond differently to identical strategies (for me personally, it didn’t help that that year was also the single most tumultuous period of my childhood).

It is crucial, therefore, that we scrutinize every one of our practices with this question: Is this best for my students? None of us are perfect, and we certainly will make mistakes where this question is concerned, but as long as we keep reflecting, apologizing, and trying again, we can be assured that we are doing all in our power to provide a safe and positive learning environment for our students.

When the answer to that question is anything but a resounding yes, we never know what the price may be.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Recovering from Perfectionism for Our Students, for Ourselves

Can you picture the first time you tried to write bubble letters? I don’t know about you, but for me, it did NOT go well. The letters bunched at the end of the page. Some parts of each letter were too fat. Others were too skinny. I knew my attempt looked nothing like my older sisters’ bubble letters, and even less like the cool typography I saw on posters.

I didn’t want anyone to see the ridiculous letters I had drawn. I wanted to hurry and throw the paper away and quickly revert to normal writing — quick! — before anyone could see that I had tried to deviate.

And that is pretty much how I felt about failure throughout my childhood.

AJ Juliani recently wrote about the difference between fail-ing and fail-ure, emphasizing the fact that when we focus on failing, we focus on the process and on how we pick ourselves back up. On the other hand, failure doesn’t have anything to do with getting back up, or with that resilience and determination.

And this is key for that wily perfectionism.

As Brene Brown wrote in The Gifts of Imperfection,

“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

For our students, who are particularly susceptible to making efforts based on peers’ perceptions, we owe it to them to model what shaking off perfectionism looks like. To show the fails and, more importantly, the subsequent attempts.

These days, I try to be honest about what my “getting back up” looks like on a regular basis (When DIYpd Goes Terribly Wrong…Or Does It; That Time I Failed At Inquiry; What Driving Stick Shift Taught Me About Teaching). Where our students are concerned, I think that’s the least we can do if we expect them to take risks and to be courageous as they stretch, fail, and grow each day. And let’s be honest — it’s the least we can do for ourselves.

Here are a couple of videos (by New Age CreatorsDiana Laufenberg) that have inspired me in my continued journey to let go of perfectionism, and to truly learn from failure. May they do they same for you!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Issue of Focus: Working for Student Ownership

Glazed-over eyes. Wandering minds. Fidgeting bodies.

There are endless reasons our students might be disengaged, and almost an equal number of ways to address it. There’s the good:

  • Evaluating & reworking our practices (Too many worksheets? Not enough movement?)

The bad:

  • Ignore it and press forward with a ghostly Professsor Binns doggedness.

And the ugly:

  • Blame it exclusively on the kids and technology (vocalizing with key phrases like “newfangled,” “millennials,” and “lazy.”)

In the midst of a long winter while teaching 5th grade (February can be particularly tough around here), one approach came to me in the form of this quote:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” ~Steve Jobs

The lightbulb flicked on, and I immediately turned the quote into a poster above my door.

As a class, we analyzed the quote together and came to several conclusions, the most important of which was to validate those “other good ideas” on our students’ minds. The discussion went something like this:

“So, is it bad to want to play with toys? Of course not! Is it bad to think about planning your get-together with friends? Absolutely not. Those are good and important things, too. It’s just that we have to say no to those other good things when you have other important things to turn  your attention to.”

This was pivotal for many of my students. The demand to “focus” had long been a struggle of good vs. bad — the things adults wanted vs. the things they wanted. This reframing helped them see that we all have to regularly choose focus by saying no to the other good things in our lives.

It became clear that this kind of validation strengthened my relationship with my students, building mutual trust. It helped them see that I am human, too, and that I, too, need to learn to prioritize my time.

One important note, however: if we view this or any other similar approach as a simple strategy to placate our students, we miss the broader picture. Rather, we should view this as one step toward greater student ownership over their learning. Only then will we move from disengagement to engagement, and then finally to empowerment.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto