On Baby Gates and Boundaries #TeacherMom

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Why do I return to this concept so often as an educator, a parent, and a human being?

The latest, more tangible, example consists of our baby gate:

We had taken it down when risks for falls became minimal for our youngest. But I recently realized that I needed it to return. I needed blanket forts and stuffed animals and cars and teacups to be contained to just one part of the house at a time.

Which made me start to wonder…

…do boundaries infringe on agency?

…where’s the balance in cultivating self-care as the grown-up & in cultivating ownership and agency in children?

…can creating boundaries be an authentically collaborative effort with the very people they’ll limit? If not, does it need to be more of a two-way effort in order to be truly collaborative?

After the gate was up for a few days, I began to find some answers.

One answer resonated with another portion of Angela Watson’s comments during the season 4 episode 2 of #IMMOOC I referenced in “When We’re Tired of Coming Up with It All Ourselves.” She stated:

“The overwhelm…comes from trying to do everything and trying to do it perfectly…We need to take that overwhelm seriously because it leads to burnout.”

Quite simply: it’s ok to establish boundaries that allow us to function to serve our kids.

I’m better able to care for my family when my sanity hasn’t been shattered with worry that my kids are climbing onto the counter, scattering (and/or eating) dog food, flooding a sink, and emptying the contents of every drawer, all while I’m rotating a load of laundry upstairs.

Of course, I’m also working on helping them comprehend why all the above behaviors are problematic, but meanwhile we’ll make very little headway if I’m perpetually exhausted.

This has classroom applications as well, of course. Establishing boundaries that allow us to be more useful as teachers is best done as an ongoing conversation with our students so they understand your needs as a teacher/human being. It also works when you’ve worked to cultivate mutual respect on a consistent basis.

But two words of caution:

1. Keep channels of communication open to allow kids to give feedback when they have outgrown certain boundaries. They will let you know if you seek and value their voices!

2. Beware taking this notion too far, as it can quickly devolve to something quite ugly. (see The Price of Putting What’s Best for Teachers over What’s Best for Students). Again. leaning on students’ voices helps here.

My very small students may not be able to yet fully understand why I need some containment. But I know that as I keep sharing what I’m feeling, and give them opportunities to do the same, we’ll set the groundwork for mutual respect and the eventual removal of that baby gate.

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Instead of Keeping Them In from Recess, What If…

…we went out with them and played a bit?

…we told that one kid on their way out that we hoped they had a terrific break and could come in fresh to try again?

…we sat down with that child who will. not. finish. that assignment, and discussed alternative opportunities for him/her to practice/demonstrate learning?

…we spend those 15 minutes contemplating that child’s strengths and how we might tap into those in order to overcome the current difficulty?

…we found ways to create more flexibility within our own schedules so students don’t necessarily have to work on the same assignments simultaneously all day long?

…we created positive calendars, complete with “publishing parties” for kids to anticipate?

…we deliberately worked on teaching time-management skills, rather than assuming they are already developed?

…we worked on making our classroom a place kids hardly ever want to leave, rather than a place they can’t wait to leave?

Just a few questions from a teacher who has kept way too many kids in from way too many recesses. Inspired by Chapter 8 of George Corous’ Innovator’s Mindset. And still wondering…

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Who Owns Documentation? (Also, the 7 year old wants to blog) #TeacherMom

Last week, I wrote about the pressure we feel to do it all ourselves. Today, I want to follow up on another facet of this pressure that manifests itself differently for both parents (especially moms, it seems) and teachers:

Documentation of milestones/growth.

As moms, it seems we feel we must be these momento-keeping wizards/hoarders, which of course, includes a large dose of guilt when we inevitably fall short. But if somehow, we do manage to create the perfect scrapbook and trophy shrine, we’re put on a pedestal of “good moms.”

As teachers, we know that documentation is important, but it’s all we can do to stay on top of benchmarks for reading, writing, and math, let alone those special art pieces or project artifacts. But don’t parents love those Pinterest-worthy files at the end of the year packed with student work?

The common denominator in both scenarios? Absence of student ownership. If it’s all about capturing our kids’ growth, why not give it back to them? Why not have them document their own mementos and aha moments?

All this came to mind when my daughter came home from school to find me blogging. We’ve talked about what I do many times, and she told me, “I love that you share your writing with teachers around the world…Did you know I have a blog at school? But only my teacher can see it. I’d like a real blog.”

Of course, TeacherMom that I am, I immediately jumped on that opportunity. I got her all set up with her own Weebly, added her posts to my RSS feeds, set the comments to “requires moderation,” and reviewed safety. Then, equally important, we discussed what kinds of writing she might share!

But I’ve been blogging for 4 years now — why haven’t I tried this idea of helping her share her writing sooner? After all, she has loved writing for as long as she could form letters.

It seems that once again, it’s fear that holds us back from allowing our kids to take on this kind of ownership. From fear of loss of control (what if they miss documenting noteworthy items?), to fear of Internet safety issues (usually emphasized more than the positive ways kids can harness tech), we hesitate, and then we take on more than we should.

It’s time to ask ourselves how we can better help our kids share the load of their own learning process. We can teach them the skills and give them the tools to take more ownership. When we do so, we can alleviate many of the stresses we have unnecessarily taken on ourselves to begin with.

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The Baby, the Bathwater, & Empowered Tech Use

I’d like to first clarify what I do not mean by “empowered tech use:”

  • intensely rationed “screen time” for good behavior
  • hours spent at school on “personalized” programs that take the person out of personalized learning

Both of these uses are less about empowerment and more about control. And they both convey negative messages about tech use; at best, that kids’ tech use is limited to consuming, and at worst, that kids are not to be trusted when it comes to responsible, creative tech use. Neither message suggests kids can or should take ownership over their tech use.

We often worry about what’s at stake when students don’t use tech with responsibility. I wonder what’s at stake when students aren’t taught to use tech with empowerment?

When we turn the conversation around, we can empower our kids to take ownership over their tech use, to balance creating vs. consuming, to contribute in positive ways, and to develop skills as literate digital citizens.

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When We’re Tired Of Coming Up With It All Ourselves #TeacherMom #IMMOOC

In season 4, episode 2 of the current #IMMOOC running, Angela Watson stressed the importance of not trying to come up with some beautiful, perfect lesson every day:

“[There’s] this self-imposed pressure to reinvent the wheel. It goes back to the notion that ‘kids these days have a short attention span, and they’re so different so they need all these different things, so therefore I need to have the most exciting lesson in the world.’ I can’t possibly do the same thing with them twice or else they’ll be bored and they won’t pay attention. One of the best things we can do as teachers is to develop this core group of activities that are open-ended and naturally differentiated that you can plug into your lessons over and over. So instead of constantly trying to find something new, have a tried-and-true repertoire of maybe 5-6 things as a new teacher, and slowly you add to that over time. Things that kids really enjoy and learn from.”

When I listened to this, it was an instant “aha moment” both as a teacher and as a parent. Sometimes I think Pinterest has warped our views of success to make us think that if there aren’t rainbow sparkles emitting from our pursuits as teachers and parents every day, we’re doing it wrong.

Instead, we can think of what works, and then how we can make that more accessible to kids. And, best of all, we can invite kids in on the discussion every step of the way.

As a teacher example, when I reflect on that repertoire of 5-6 activities that usually worked really well, I think of visible learning. Protocols like:

Once we find protocols that seem to work well in generating quality thinking, sharing, and stretching, the next step is to make sure they are well known enough that when you invite students to help plan, they can easily pick out which ones would be appropriate for upcoming concepts/content. This might come in the form of putting up posters with a summary of what each one involves, or it might simply mean posting a list in your “planning corner” where students can be reminded that they are ready to be put to use.

When I think of my parenting 5-6 go-to’s for my small kids, I think of:

  • Our sensory box (bin full of pinto beans)
  • Playdough
  • Kitchen play
  • Read Alongs
  • Outdoor play
  • Puzzles

Just as with the teacher items, the real magic happens when we let kids in on the planning, ensuring kids remember what activities are within reach. Ownership is shared, energy is multiplied, and fervor is rekindled. I’ve seen this happen when I’ve worked to set the environment so my kids can better plan their own daily activities.

You see, there’s just no need for us to come up with it all ourselves. Maybe those burnt-out feelings are just a good reminder that we can look to the kids we serve to find the very energy we’re looking for!

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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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