Why I Focus On Agency #TeacherMom

The beginning of Netflix’s rendition of The Little Prince begins with a mother unveiling her child’s life plan to ensure admission to the “right school.” She tells her daughter, “Let’s face it. You’re going to be all alone out there. So we can’t afford to make any more mistakes. You’re going to be a wonderful grown-up.”

While it’s certainly an over-the-top portrayal, when we think about all the societal pressures to ensure our kids’ success, it’s more representative than it might initially seem.

I remember a day a few years back when I was feeling like a particular failure as a parent. I decided to make a list of all the things that were stressing me. In so doing, I realized that it wasn’t so much the daily to-do list itself that was weighing me down; it was the fear of what would happen if I failed at any given item on the list (ie, make sure the kids get quality outdoor play each day OR ELSE they might not develop proper health habits and someday contract heart disease; make sure the house stays clean OR ELSE they might grow up to be hoarders featured on some reality-tv show, etc, etc).

Dire consequences were attached to every task. And it came down to me to prevent every one of those consequences.

As I continued my list, I came to the essential realization: I had thought my actions were driven by love; turns out they were actually driven by fear.

At first, it may seem that what’s driving the action is irrelevant, as long as the results are the same. But upon closer inspection, we realize what happens in a fear-driven environment:

  • We focus less on others’ agency and more on control.
  • We don’t share the load, even with people who have an interest in it.
  • We trust less.
  • We worry more.
  • We stress over timetables & milestones.
  • We are exhausted.

As I have instead worked to start from a place of love, I have found that I focus more and more on the agency of those around me. Because only when I stop worrying about whether I’m enough can I more clearly realize see their strength. Their capacity. Their courage.

This quote from William Stixrud resonated with me so much that this is my second time sharing it in as many weeks:

“I start with the assumption that kids have a brain in their head and they want their lives to work. They want to do well. That’s why we want to change the energy, so the energy is coming from the kid seeking help from us rather than us trying to boss the kid, sending the message, “You can’t do this on your own.””

When we’re driven by fear, the burden rests with us to prevent calamity and shape the world.

When we’re driven by love, the burden rests with us all in an open, thoughtfully-discussed, and shared manner.

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When School Is a To-Do List…

…do kids see anything but the list?

…do they put themselves into the learning?

“Seeing a student completely zone out in front of a screen and letting the computer lead the learning is not where I hope education is moving…Let’s just remember that in “personalization” is the word “person.”” ~George Couros

…are they bringing their own energy and passion into those tasks?

…how is their ability for a self-driven life impacted? Are they more or less equipped?

“I start with the assumption that kids have a brain in their head and they want their lives to work. They want to do well. That’s why we want to change the energy, so the energy is coming from the kid seeking help from us rather than us trying to boss the kid, sending the message, “You can’t do this on your own.”” ~William Stixrud

…do they get the chance to discover the power of their own voices?

…is there any room left for curiosity, when so much energy is spent on compliance?

“How do you view the learners in your class? Do you believe children are inherently intelligent, curious and creative? Do you recognise their rights and their capabilities? Do you trust them?” ~Edna Sackson

…is there time for reflection and metacognition?

…do students feel they are making personal discoveries worth discussing?

“I want the students to sit on their own shoulders – watch themselves, notice their responses and listen to their self-talk.  I want them to slow down, press the pause button and review their actions. I want them to ask: “what am I noticing about myself in this?”  “What did I just do/say?” “What is this telling me about myself?” “What could I do differently?” I want them to bring an inquiry stance to learning about themselves as people  and I want them to carry that disposition into the rest of their lives.” ~Kath Murdoch

What small changes can we make to better help students learn to own and drive their learning?

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Agency Is Not Just For School #TeacherMom

After sharing my post on employing read alongs to keep my kids from movie-zombie-land for the entirety of Christmas break, a friend in my PLN reminded me,

I immediately knew she was right; while the read-alongs are enjoyed by all, my initial attitude centered more on my own needs than on my kids’. Of course, self-care is essential as parents, but when we consistently turn first to “keeping them busy,” we may miss opportunities to help them develop greater awareness, ownership, and responsibility over their own time–both in and out of the classroom.

All that said, as I started to consider how to bring this kind of autonomous personal planning to life for my 7, 3, and 1 year-old children, doubts sprung up in abundance:

What if they choose to watch movies all. day. long?

We’re still dealing with quite a lot of underdeveloped temporal understanding here–how can I entrust them to planning a couple of weeks worth of time?

What about good healthy stretches of unplanned time/boredom

What if my 7 year old plans a beautiful day and then sickness or other unforeseen events cause it to fall flat?

Where am I going to find the time to help her plan her entire holiday time?

But as I continued to consider my desire to apply my learning in all areas of my life (synthesize over compartmentalize), I realized that desire outweighed my fears.

Interestingly enough, at that very moment of resolution, and without any prompting from me, my daughter told me that she was off to write a list of fun things she might do. I took it as a sign–I grabbed some paper to create a calendar as she worked on her list of activities (which, I should add, included our read-alongs). 🙂

As we worked, an idea occurred to me to address the issue of temporal understanding: what if I measured to scale each day based on the number of hours she is awake? I measured the height of a day-square and then divided that by 12, as my daughter is usually awake for 12 hours each day. Then I made a little time ruler for her, with each line representing one hour:

When I explained it to my daughter, it was a huge light-bulb moment; she was so excited to have a way to make her concept of time more tangible.

We filled in some scheduled events we already had planned, and then I let her go with the rest!

As with most authentic pursuits in student agency, its scope ended up far beyond the original project, including mathematics, writing, speaking/listening skills, and self-management. My fears turned out to be either unfounded or minimal; there were no fights about watching movies all day long, we actually got to build temporal awareness, and there wasn’t any fussing when things didn’t work out.

Moreover, whenever holiday boredom hit, I was able to ask my daughter what she had planned for herself that day, which was always a positive exchange.

Once again, I’m so grateful for my amazing PLN for pushing my thinking and helping me stay accountable! Thanks, Olwen!

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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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Love & Logic Limits: Is It Always a Choice? #TeacherMom

The lack of a school-bell telling me where to be at all times is probably my Achilles heel of stay-at-home parenthood. So a couple mornings ago — having gotten sidetracked by my newest flea-bitten idea for making our small space function more efficiently — by the time I got showered and ready for the day, my preschooler had stealthily pilfered the refrigerator and my one year old had had a fabulous time with a contraband stick of gum.

What’s more, having had a late bedtime the night before, my three year-old was also clearly ready for an early nap — evidenced by the fact when I asked him if he was ready to choose his clothes to go buy groceries, he dissolved into melt-down mode because he wanted a snack first. To top it off, the entire episode devolved to him irrationally stomping on his baby brother’s hands.

Now, if I were to focus on a strictly Love and Logic approach here, I might have told my 3 year year-old something like this: “Son, what sad choices to refuse to wear your clothes and to hurt your brother! I’m going to do something about this. We’ll talk later.”

Limitation #1: When we mistakenly assume that this is just about a poor choice. Such a response may help to temporarily and even effectively diffuse the situation, but it ultimately tends to puts the blame squarely on his shoulders when, in fact, there were factors so far beyond his control at work here (late bedtime, off-schedule morning, etc) that he was now operating in fight/flight mode.

Enter the discussion on “stress behavior.”

I’m fascinated by the concept of misbehavior vs stress behavior in Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg. He writes:

“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.”

Older students aren’t going to have the same self-regulatory issues as the little ones, but we should still be on the look-out for when they arise, and cultivate their ability to self-regulate in the meantime.

Limitation #2: When we mistakenly assume that this is just about defiance. This is closely linked with the first. For our discussion on this limitation, we’ll take a look at this “nobody loses” approach on the Love & Logic blog below:

First, a disclaimer. Maybe Jessie was causing serious trouble and disturbing Brittany by moving her chair to work with her. If that’s the case, then I think this is an absolutely fitting Love & Logic response. However, if Jessie was simply trying to solve her problem of needing help by seeking it from a peer (as per the Love & Logic rule that we can do anything to solve our problems as long as it does not cause a problem for you or anyone else), it begs the question of whether the Love & Logic response here was necessary to begin with.

If our goal is control, then we will reap defiance in abundance.

I appreciate another passage from Self-Reg here:

“As parents [and teachers] it’s natural to assume that when our child’s behavior or our reactions feel “out of control,” then control is what’s missing. But to focus on control is also to shut down opportunity: end of discussion, end of a potentially constructive interaction, end of a teachable moment of lasting value. Self-Reg instantly opens the moment to opportunity. That begins with the simple act of asking, “Why now?””

And if the teacher in this hypothetical focuses more on control than on Jessie’s need for help, then an opportunity is missed indeed.

Naturally, angry, rude, and disrespectful outbursts are never acceptable, and require correction. But I wonder if we might find ourselves doing less correcting if we instead adopt what’s found in Brene Brown’s “Engaged Feedback Checklist” (esp #1, 2, and 7 for our context here):

Failure to recognize these limitations — to treat all poor behavior as deliberate and disrespectful decisions — can ultimately damage relationships with those who most need our help.

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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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10 Ways for “Every Student to Be On Their Own Learning Path”

Edutopia recently shared Sal Khan’s story and vision in establishing Khan Academy. What stands out most to me was his goal for Khan Academy to help “Bring [us] closer to this model of true personalization where every student is on their own learning path and feels fully engaged.”

Khan Academy can indeed be such a tool for this personalization goal. But it certainly cannot and does not stand alone in such a lofty pursuit. Fortunately for us all, teachers are globally and daily sharing their aha moments and best practices. Here are additional ideas, largely thanks to my PLN’s incredible willingness to share their learning journeys, for helping students get on “their own learning path.”

1. Allow them to plan their day. As teachers Taryn Bond-Clegg and Aviva Dunsiger have illustrated, this can be done with older and younger students:

A good reminder and a little learning for me today … #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on

Taryn’s full post “Supporting Students’ Agency Take 2” is definitely worth a read. Click on the above images for the link.

2. Do whatever it takes to find out how they really feel. I believe it’s mainly fear that holds us back from uncovering student voice — because what if they say they hate our subjects? What if it invites conflict? What if it takes too much time?

Indeed, when I read posts from Pernille Ripp like her recent “When Reading is Trash or Magic” that shares how she seeks for students’ honest feedback, I wonder how on earth I would respond to some of their bold answers. However, the truth that she and others who do the same have taught me is this:

Only when we uncover students’ true feelings can we help them develop shifts in mindset.

Only when they recognize that they can express what they truly feel — without fear of teacher disapproval or backlash — will they be willing to let their guard down enough to give things a shot.

And only when they see that we are willing to work with them wherever they are will they be able to embark on their own learning path.

3. Help them break down required learning outcomes to tackle them on their terms. Again, Taryn Bond-Clegg shares a fabulous example of this in her post above. Rather than just presenting students with a list of objectives, she helps them break things down into a gradual increase of independence. I have yet to find a better way to negotiate the existence of required learning outcomes with student ownership over their learning.

Taryn shares ways they helped students learn from experts to “ensure [they] are on the right track”
4. Explicitly teach AND model the growth mindset. And it’s not enough to settle on simple platitudes of, “you can do anything if you just try.” It takes being authentic and vulnerable with them. As Jo Boaler recently shared in season 3 episode 1 of #IMOOC (32:10):

“One of the problems kids have is they look at their math teacher and they think, ‘Oh, that’s what being a math person is; you know everything, you never make mistakes, you’re totally sure of everything.’ That’s a terrible image to give kids. So one of the reasons teachers don’t try some of those more open creative tasks is because they don’t know what will happen. They don’t know what kids are going to do.”

Katie Martin adds, “[We must] have conversations with kids about making mistakes — and not just a fake make-mistake — but when you’re actually taking a risk, where you have the possibility of something not working out, [that’s] really powerful.”

5. Explicitly teach AND model metacognition. Visible thinking routines are especially useful on this front because it brings that thinking to the surface. I loved having the opportunity to work with teachers at my old school last year during which we applied visible thinking routines to bring their thoughts on inquiry to the whiteboard for group dissection. Students must learn their processes to bring their thinking to the surface in order to more fully take the reins over their learning.

6. Provide choice in how they organize their thinking. Melanie Meehan recently shared an excellent example of how we sometimes get caught in the pitfall of believing all the students need to use the same graphic organizer to gather their thoughts. Here’s her example of several writing graphic organizers:

(speaking of ways writers plan, have you ever geeked out over seen J.K. Rowling’s timelines for her plotlines?)

7. Provide choice in how they express/assess their thinking. Seesaw, notebooks, vlogs, portfolios, word clouds, Storybird, Prezi, sketchnotes… the list goes on and on. The point is that we need to get out of the mindset that all the students need to have the same presentation in order for it to be valid.

8. Create a rich and diverse culture of reading. I loved watching Colby Sharp’s vlog touring his classroom library — quite aside from the sheer volume, I was impressed at his clear efforts to reach all his students’ reading needs. Obviously, this culture goes beyond just the presence of books — my short list for additional inspiration includes Nerdy Book Club, Pernille Ripp’s blog, and LibraryGirl.

9. Give them autonomy over self-regulatory basics. This includes bathroom use and snacks. I wrote some time ago about why and how we need to abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?” and it’s just as relevant as ever now. I also appreciated Aviva Dunsiger’s classroom tour when she showed where and why she has a designated spot for her kindergartners to “eat when they feel hungry.” After all, how can we expect them to be on their own learning path if they are distracted by waiting to take care of their personal basic needs?

10. Prioritize the pursuit of meaning Time and time again, through my own practice and through the many wonderful teachers in my PLN, meaning is the way we get out of “the game of school.” If it doesn’t personally matter to them, nothing we do will matter in the longterm. See my story of “Digging Deeper in a Poetry Unit” on Edutopia for a personal example.

I look forward to continuing to learn and discover ways we can truly help our students own and personalize their learning. Thank you to all the teachers out there who have and continue to share their learning journeys!

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