Tolerance of Messy in Favor of Learning #TeacherMom

I like tidiness. I find myself struggling to think straight when my environment gets too chaotic.

And yet for the last several months, our family room inevitably returns to some version of this:

Not too bad, but when it happens every day, several times a day, and across every room and even his bed — it starts to wear down this parent’s sanity.

Lately, however, I have started to try and shift my perspective. I realize that the repetitive scattering of books can look like a mess…or it can look like rich early literacy development.

After all, my 2 year-old is not just yanking them out just to make a mess. He is just devouring them, sometimes flipping through the pictures, other times approximating the story out loud for himself.

When we’re in the classroom, the reality is that we can’t always handle the volume of messy learning — especially when there are 30+ students! That’s why it’s important to spend time talking about our shared responsibilities for our shared learning space, and making room for students to express how they feel about their environment.

We are currently working on learning to put the books back on the shelves, as well. But through this process, both with my very small student at home, and with our classroom students, it’s important to always hold aloft what matters most: the learning. It reminds me of a quote I’ve often heard:

One might similarly state, never let a problem to be solved become more important than learning to be gained.

What are ways a shift in your perspective has helped you navigate the complexities of teaching?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

“Diverse System, Maximum Resilience”

I recently watched the video below via The Kid Should See This. Though it’s entitled, “A Forest Garden With 500 Edible Plants Could Lead to a Sustainable Future,” gardening was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I couldn’t stop thinking of, you guessed it, students and learning.


First thoughts: How does conventional gardening relate to conventional education?

  • Neat rows for maximum efficiency
  • Keeping species (or age groups) separated from one another
  • Focusing more on maximizing performance from each plant rather than considering how different plants might work together for growth

Next: How are principles of gardening sustainability applicable to learning?

  • Teaching/permitting students to take the lead in their learning.
  • Setting up the environment so that students can flourish in their strengths and in ownership (from access to supplies to apps to loose parts objects). See example in our stop-motion movie making efforts.
  • Ensuring that instruction in skills is balanced with nurturing of meaning and connection. Read this story of two poetry units for ideas.

And finally, how do we mitigate the fear of messier gardening learning and less control?

  • The first answer comes from a quote from the gardener in the video, Martin Crawford: “It can seem a bit overwhelming to have so many different species, but you shouldn’t stop that from beginning a project because you don’t have to know everything to begin with. Just start, plant some trees, and go from there.”
  • Engage students’ voices through class meetings, suggestion boxes, and having plan their own time, and self-assessment. See “10 Ways for Every Student to be on their own Learning Path.”
  • Work with parents proactively so that they understand that messy does not equate to out of control or lack of learning.

I love the image of teachers as gardeners, and all the more so when it’s less about control/production and more about trust in inherent potential. Nourishing along the way, we can all find richer meaning, resilience, and sustainability.

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5 Things I Want My Students to Know About Me as a Teacher

Olwen recently posed one of her fabulous thought-provoking questions.

What motivates you as an educator? What is it that you really want your students to know about you as a teacher? #KidsDeserveIt #inclusiveEd #pypchat #LeadLAP @ShiftParadigm @ChrisQuinn64 @mraspinall @mary_teaching @cvarsalona @burgessdave— Olwen (@notjustup2u) February 6, 2019

I was going to write a quick, agency-related reply, but then I got thinking some more and decided a blog post was in order.

#1: I believe in helping students take the wheel for their own lives.

I see myself as a guide, ready to help students make necessary adjustments and to help them discover possibilities they had not yet considered. I recognize that this requires sharing ownership over the learning space, honoring student voice & choice, and letting go of my need to feel “in control” in favor of messy-but-essential student-led planning.

#2: I want learning to be as authentic as possible.

Obviously, we can’t always go visit the Louvre to study the art in person, but thanks to the digital world, there’s so much more at our fingertips than our dusty textbooks and basal readers. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Studying mentor texts to learn their craft and technique rather than having drills about those techniques.
  • Exploring landforms using Google Earth or by going outside rather than having a powerpoint presentation about them.
  • Using real-world math problems rather than sticking with endless practice sheets.
  • Making connections by using provocations and focusing on big concepts rather than learning every skill and subject in isolation.

#3: I try to practice what I preach.

If I tell my students to be risk-takers, I want them to know how I’m working on it, too. If I expect them to write poetry, I will work to truly engage in the process right alongside them. If I want them to take action in their community, I will do the same. I never want to be that coach sitting on the ATV riding alongside runners!

#4: I love being a teacher, but I have a lot of other interests, too.

My family is the most important part of my life, and I have a lot of other passions that help me to feel happy and fulfilled, from biking to carpentry to urban planning. I want them to know this not only because it helps them understand who I am as a human being, but so that they also understand that I truly do love to keep learning new things.

#5: My foundation for “classroom management” is a blend of self-regulation, relationships, and humanity.

I am terribly imperfect at this, but it is something I strive for. I would rather put my energy in teaching students the tools to regulate their own feelings and impulses than to try and regulate them myself. I would rather sit on the same side of the table to have conversations with individual students rather than place all the blame on the student. I would rather work on finding a solution together rather than keeping them in from recess.

I hadn’t realized how important it is for students to really understand all these things about me as their teacher until I wrote them down, so thank you so much, Olwen, for the reflection opportunity!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

9 Homework Assumptions to Scrutinize

1. Reducing or eliminating homework would further put poorer kids at a disadvantage. Though this might seem to be an equity issue, it is, in fact, a very presumptuous position. Asserting that these families require supplementation assumes current at-home learning experiences are insufficient. Working instead to ask, listen, and respond to what the needs are is a much more equitable approach.

2. Homework encourages families to come together for education. I have come to be suspicious of programs and approaches that view families as an appendage to the school rather than school as an appendage to the family. We should be wary of the idea that only by the school’s intervention will a family come together in support of a child’s education.

3. Homework is the only way for parents to know what’s happening in school. If parents don’t know what’s going on at school, the solution is not to burden students. Rather, it tells me the school needs to work on building stronger partnerships, starting with cultivating student ownership for better communication.

4. Homework develops study skills and responsibility. Actually, no studies have proven that homework improves non-academic skills. [read more here]

5. Homework prepares students for the next level. It is irresponsible to allow possible future demands to ignore the current developmental needs of a child. Excessive focus on the future robs us of today’s opportunities. Consider the effects of preschool becoming more focused on drilling ABC’s than on gross motor skills: more kids enter kindergarten unable to sit up in their chairs due to lack of core strength and balance.

6. Other countries assign more homework and their students perform better than ours. Finland, anyone?

7. Homework → good grades → success. Quite aside from the shaky-at-best claims that homework does actually improve grades, this assumption leaves student well-being out of the equation. Which always makes me think of this profound tweet from Amy Fast last year:

8. Students won’t practice at home unless we assign homework. Maybe this is true if we never give them the chance to practice without our personal intervention. But anecdotal experience has proven otherwise: my 8 year-old loves making math books, writing stories, and crafting scientific models, all without any official assignments. Just this morning over breakfast, we had a casual chat about the difference between multiplication and division.

9. There is no choice but to assign homework because of… There are a lot of reasons that might make us think we have no choice if we want to accomplish our learning goals, but the truth is that there are many alternatives available. See for example 7 Ways to Communicate We Care About At-Home Reading — Without Reading Logs.

Less assuming and mandating. More listening and connecting!

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Strategies to trust students to own learning when they seem uninterested

Sonya asked a question that is so important to acknowledge when we’re working to cultivate student agency and ownership over their learning:

This is different from non-compliance. Non-compliance asks, “how can we get them to do what we ask?” And interestingly enough, for many students, non-compliance issues are often resolved when we shift to the agency-based question that Sonya’s tweet is really about: “How can we inspire students to own their learning?”

But what about when they do comply, and they do take some ownership of their learning, but, as Sonya writes, they “are satisfied with the minimum possible effort?” Here are a few thoughts.

1. Partner with parents. It’s entirely possible that if you just ask, “What have you found motivating for your child?” you’ll find the parents have been at a loss, too. But you might find more success if you try asking something more specific, such as, “What are the top 3 topics that make your child light up?” or “Can you share with me a time when your child was excited to take the lead on something?” This is also an important step to take to check if there might be something bigger going on in the student’s life that is making learning a low priority.

2. Hold regular conferences. I appreciated the details of what makes a conference effective in the recent post by Lanny Ball, “What to do when a writer doesn’t say much?” It’s geared toward writing conferences, but the same qualities can be applied to any kind of conference feedback:

  • “Happens in the moment

  • Specific and calibrated

  • Focused and honest

  • Offers one (maybe two) practical tip(s)

  • Lays out a plan for follow-up

  • Demands a high level of agency from the student”

3. Demystify coming up with ideas. For many students, coming up with an idea can seem like something only those people can do. Help them demystify this by showing them process, process, process. Talk about your own process. Highlight peer process. Share experts’ process. Julie Faltako’s “The Truth About the Writing Process” below is a great example of this (as is her Twitter account, as she regularly turns to others for ideas). And of course, keep a chart of strategies nearby for when we get stuck!

I also love “Where Do Ideas Come From” by Andrew Norton

4. Use “Must, Should, Could” for time planning with exemplars. I absolutely love David Gastelow’s “Must, Should, Could” chart with his young students.

from IB Educator Voices blog

For students who struggle with coming up with ideas, I would definitely provide a menu from which they can select, hopefully gradually opening up over time as they become confident.

5. Expand their knowledge base & sense of self-discovery. 

I love inspirational videos like the ones below–I often include them in the provocation posts I write. They help lift us out of the rut of the everyday and help us glimpse issues and passions we might not have even considered. Sharing this kind of work with students, and then finding opportunities to research deeper, might help provide the knowledge base that will awaken a student to a sense of his/her own capacity.

Speaking of knowledge, check out this simple but illuminating visual from Margaret (Maggie) Lewis in Sonya’s thread:

None of the above is foolproof. Working with human beings is messy and will requires serious trial-and-error. As Alfie Kohn recently wrote about motivation:

“Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively, or acquire good values takes time, thought, effort, and courage.”

It’s why we need each other in this process! If you have additional strategies or resources, I’m sure we’d all be grateful if you could add to the list!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Lessons from filming our bike ride to the library #TeacherMom

I recently decided to film our weekly bike ride to the library. My 8 year-old was out of school for the holiday, so she is featured in the video as my boys were behind me in our trailer. Conscious of the need for others to gain insight on what it’s like to take another form of transportation, I shared this with my local community.

The overall response was positive and encouraging. But perhaps because my daughter was the only one of the four of us visible in the video, I was surprised to find that much of the conversation rested on her. I know now there were a lot of raised eyebrows at the sight of “this young girl biking in town.”

As usual, my reflections have brought me here. I’ve been thinking about some of the lessons through this experience, especially concerning how we view what kids are capable of.

#1: Sometimes, shielding kids from one risk leads to other dangers

When one person expressed fear at the sight of what they viewed to be such a risk, I responded by explaining our biking experience and how I know my daughter’s familiarity with the rules and her capacity to follow them.

I went on to explain that riding our bikes is a way to integrate physical activity into our day, which helps address serious risks associated with inactivity like heart disease and depression (noting also that the rising generation is the first projected to have a shorter lifespan than the previous generation for this reason). Of course, riding in traffic is scarier and we do avoid it when possible (and we work to advocate for better infrastructure that makes biking more comfortable for families).

We need to be careful not to shield kids so thoroughly from one risk that we open them up to others that are just as, if not more, threatening.

#2: One person’s “brave” is another person’s normal 

back when she was young enough for the seat! Baby brother snugly tucked in the baby carrier.

A very common response was, “Wow, you guys are so brave!” While I am very proud of my daughter for riding, I know that this is less about courage and more about capacity and experience. She has been riding with me since she she was just a year old; this is our normal. Which is the point. We want to normalize an active lifestyle so she can carry habits into her future that will allow her to have a high quality life.

Focusing on how brave something looks can detract from how doable it really is. That’s not to say it doesn’t require courage to start, but we can be emboldened in knowing we are not alone!

#3: We shouldn’t focus so much on what needs improvement that it intimidates people from joining in 

Even when I was editing the video and adding music, I was mindful to try achieve a delicate balance between conveying what we love about our active lifestyle and ways we can make it safer. I didn’t want it to seem so upbeat that it made people think there aren’t any issues to address, but I didn’t want to be so serious that it scares people away.

To me, all this comes back to the classroom in so many ways. I feel like Sam Sherratt captured it nicely in his recent tweet on learning from Reggio Emilia teachers:

When they are given the support they need, kids truly are capable of so much! We can encourage them to be knowledgeable risk-takers. We can help normalize positive habits. We can acknowledge and work on issues without allowing them to keep us away. All of this requires a lot of work, imagination, and letting go, but ultimately, it is our children and students who benefit from being empowered to take care of themselves and live life to the fullest.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Opportunities When We Let Them Teach

The first portion of my 8 year-old’s parent teacher conference a couple weeks ago was student-led, during which she was able to share her desire to be given serious responsibilities. As a result, her wonderful teacher allowed her to teach a math lesson.

She came home brimming with pride–and with a new career aspiration. And I’ve been reflecting on the this ever since. I know that when I was teaching myself, I did not often provide these experiences, which is why I greatly admire teacher like:

I’m looking forward to implementing student-led workshops and lessons more frequently when I return to the classroom! Meanwhile, some benefits I’ve been able to see just from my daughter’s experience include the following.

Opportunity #1: Helps take down “secret teacher business”

The idea of dismantling “secret teacher business” has been thrilling and fascinating to me ever since my introduction via Edna Sackson’s blog. Allowing students to teach gives them insight on the bigger picture of school–the curricula, the planning, the constraints–which in turn can bring greater ownership and sense of purpose.

Opportunity #2: Helps them develop empathy

Among all the positive aspects of teaching, my daughter also observed, “Some kids were not very respectful.” When students are given the opportunity to direct the classroom, they gain new insight on what an enormous task this can be. While this should not be the only reason we pursue student-led endeavors, it’s certainly a wonderful benefit when students learn to see their teachers as human beings, too.

Opportunity #3: Helps them process learning in a new way

My daughter taught a lesson on rounding using a variety of strategies. This was a math topic she loved, but approaching it from a teacher’s perspective required her to use speaking & listening skills, in addition to her mathematical processing skills.

Opportunity #4: Helps them learn to take ownership

Especially when students are offered the chance to teach about a variety of concepts (including offering “non-academic” workshops), they can share in the learning plans. I especially love all the descriptions of teachers who allow students to opt-in to sessions, resulting a group of learners who actually chose to be there and learn that content.

Opportunity #5: Confidence-building

I loved the student feedback in Mindy’s post linked above. Especially:

student comment via blog by Mindy Slaughter

Student-led lessons are just another facet of cultivating student agency in our classrooms. What other benefits have you observed?

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featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto