She Just Asked Google To Remind Her to “Read All the Books On the Bottom Shelf” #TeacherMom

A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted. 

But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:

The pressures I felt to ensure she memorized the ABC’s before kindergarten.

The way I felt like a failure as a teacher when she would not cooperate with my beautifully laid-out magnetic letter play.

The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.

The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”

The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.

Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”

It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.

This is where I’ll share and re-share this quote from Brene Brown (see it also on Preschool, Kinder-Prep, & 3 Things Kids Need Most):

There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.

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Learning to Cram or Learning to Live?

One of the most powerful moments of the film “Most Likely To Succeed” (shared with me by my friend Abe Moore) was when a group of students, when faced with the question of whether they’d like to learn to apply to their lives or learn to ace the tests, they all choose acing tests.

Why? Because this was me in high school, too. I did not have patience for the teachers that tried to push their mumbo-jumbo philosophy of life on us, because we all knew that ultimately, it was only the tests that mattered anyway.

The tests. The gateways to colleges and careers. And if you hadn’t already started cramming for them, you were doomed, right?

So moving was that moment — especially paired with a parent explaining to the progressive teacher that she just “didn’t want any doors closed” to her child, it was almost enough to throw out the whole premise of the documentary, which is that we must change the way school works in order for kids to succeed in this ever-changing world.

Almost enough. But not quite. Because as I continued to watch, I became curious. If these kids aren’t taking the traditional courses and writing the traditional essays and memorizing for the traditional tests, are they getting into college? And if so, are they succeeding there?

It would seem they are. In my curiosity, I came across these High Tech High alumni stories, and I was impressed to hear the kinds of resilience and self-awareness these kids have clearly cultivated and are applying to their higher education journeys.

But even they conceded that in college, they still must face pressure and cramming and testing — but they reassure younger students that they will be ok and that it’s hard for everyone. Meanwhile, as the end of the movie points out, these students are still scoring well on the state standardized tests and getting into college, even without all the emphasis on test prep.

All this leads me to conclude that cramming doesn’t deserve the emphasis we’ve been giving it all these years. Wouldn’t it be better to first cultivate curiosity, determination, resilience, and sense of self, and then trust that our kids will be able to face the obstacles that arise?

I’ll close with one of the final remarks from a teacher in the documentary:

“There is a chance that they will come out without all of the extremelytangible skills and content that they would get at a normal high school…but if we’re going to believe that the content knowledge we’re trying to impart on them in a traditional school is not being retained, then I would argue, what is it again that they’re missing?…Here, they’re gonna leave with an extreme depth of some content and a whole bunch of other soft skills, they’re gonna have grit, they’re gonna be able to persevere through difficulty, they’re good at communicating with adults and their peers, they’re collaborative, they have empathy, all these things that are not things that disappear your junior year of high school. And so, when parents ask that, and they do ask that all the time, it’s really kind of a what do you want out of your student, who do you want them to be?”

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No Secret Parent Business Either #TeacherMom

Ok, before you think my title means I’m advocating that we expose the Tooth Fairy & abolish bedtimes, let me clarify the phrase “no secret teacher business.” It’s a phrase I hear frequently from teachers like Taryn Bond-Clegg and Edna Sackson, mostly with regards to how we plan our precious time together. It’s about cultivating mutual trust and student ownership to show them they are capable of planning productive days.

So what are the applications here on the parent side of things?

Well, just a few weeks into summer break, I’ve found myself with frayed nerves under the constant onslaught of questions:

  • What’s next…?
  • What time…?
  • How long…?
  • How soon…?
  • When can we…?

Fortunately, right before I lost my mind altogether, I realized that I already make a daily list of tasks and scheduled to-dos in advance in Google Keep.

Better still, I realized there’s a fantastic feature in which one can invite collaborators. I immediately knew I needed to share with my daughter; though I confess that initially it was less about shared ownership and more about preserving my sanity (though it turns out the latter is a happy byproduct!)

Here’s what I noticed when I started sharing “the plan:”

  • An immediate drop in the above-listed questions (phew!)
  • An immediate increase in thoughtful discussions about how we spend our time.
  • Greater independence since it turned out she preferred consulting the Google Keep list to find out what’s next, too.
  • The beginning of actual collaboration — she started helping me with some of my tasks, crossing off items she knew were complete, and even adding some of her own to-do’s!

Inviting kids in on the plan is truly a win-win. When they realize that we trust them to be in the know, they will show us they are capable of truly contributing to the way we plan our time. Together.

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Inquiry Into Owning My Learning

When we have lofty visions of students taking the wheel at their own learning, it can be devastating when they seem to reject that agency. It’s understandable why this happens; after all, most have years of training that only teachers make the important decisions regarding their learning, & it’s difficult to reverse that dependency.

However, I believe there are still layers to that rejection that can be valuable for us to try and recognize. Often, it may be that they need to develop more skills (see the self-management skills provocation). Maybe they need to better see themselves as inquirers. Or, perhaps, they simply need to have their sights elevated in general as to why personal ownership over learning is so important. That’s where this week’s provocation comes in. As always, I would love to hear how this goes with your students in the comments below!

Resource #1: Cogs by AIME Mentoring

Resource #2: The Power to Create by Matthew Taylor & The RSA

Resource #3: What Adults Can Learn From Kids, TED Talk by Adora Svitak

Resource #4: Most Likely to Succeed film trailer 

Resource #5: True Colors personality quiz

Yes, a personality quiz. But I promise it’s not one of those “which celebrity is your soul-mate” kinds of quizzes — it’s generally based on Don Lowry’s work to help people understand themselves a little better, and might help students recognize their existing strengths to take the wheel at their learning.

Resource #6: Adam Kotsko’s tweet

Provocation Questions:

  • What does it mean to own our own learning?
  • Why does your voice in your own learning matter?
  • How does our ability to own our own learning change over time?
  • How does an uncertain & ever-changing future make ownership over learning so important?
  • What is the connection between creativity and ownership over learning?
  • What are the points of view on kids owning their learning?
  • What kinds of responsibilities come with ownership over learning?
  • What are some of the challenges we face when we start depending less on the teacher and more on ourselves to drive our learning?
  • How might I (as the teacher) better help you access the tools you need to own your learning?

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What Trust Is Not…

Whenever we talk about trusting our kids, reservations inevitably arise. Safety? Wasted opportunities? Wasted time?

Often, these fears grow from a convoluted interpretation of what it means to trust our kids. So I’d like to start a discussion here on what trust is not. Trust is NOT…

negligence. Quite the opposite. When we define all the timetables, we are directors of our students, which really can take place at an arm’s length (I assign the work, you complete it by the end of class, test, repeat). When we trust, when become learners of our students, watching and listening as we immerse ourselves in their progress, offering guidance along the way. I found this approach to be beautifully captured by Faige Meller here:

We always wonder if they’re learning, if we’re doing a good job, if were covering the curriculum and if they’ll be ready for the next grade? We test, we do running records, we talk, we ask questions and we write report cards. But I have another idea!  How about we also watch the kids, we listen to them as they’re doing the learning. We see how they incorporate what we’ve taught in their authentic application of the learning as they write graphic novels; how they laugh gleefully reading to each other, discovering something in the story that was new to them; how they figure out how to cut paper to make pop ups (there’s math there folks,) and how eager they are to share with their teachers all that and more!

turning a blind eye. Sometimes, our students will waste their time, just as at times, adults waste time. But that doesn’t mean that clamping down on trust for them all is the answer. Trusting our students involves getting to know them extremely well. and then using that information to make more whole-picture decisions when they seem to fall short. This example from my friend Monte Syrie went viral on Bored Panda because people know it’s not about ignoring problems, but acknowledging the whole context with humanity.

a total lack of boundaries. That, of course, would be educational suicide. The nature of boundaries in a trust/student-centered classroom is a much more nuanced conversation. But mostly involves a lot of conversations with our students, both on the individual level and as a whole. More on that discussion here in “Baby Gates & Boundaries.”

insisting on too little structure too soon. Especially after years of being trained that teachers make all the important decisions regarding their learning, it’s understandable that many of our students struggle with ownership being given back to them.

We recognize that working toward greater levels of trust, along with that “gradual release,” is always an ongoing process, guided by how well we’ve come to know our kids and gaining their trust in return. (planning on centering next week’s provocation around this!)

lack of planning. When we become more focused on following and trusting the child, we work to become experts of the mandated curricula so we can identify where to help students make connections in their own learning paths. Sonya terBorg describes this well in her post on control:

Giving control of learning to the child doesn’t mean sitting in the corner with your feet up and letting them flounder.  It means becoming an observer, a guide, a road map of sorts – ready to be referenced.  It means being attuned to what is going on in your classroom and being prepared to ask for clarification from the children in your class.  It means posing the right questions, sharing the right provocations, providing the appropriate amount of time for them to work their magic.

unwarranted risk. We may face the raised brow by those who claim that the system — the programs, the lectures, the testing, the teacher control — is working just fine. For the few that still believe that, it may be hard to convince them that any deviation is necessary. But for those of us who see that kids aren’t retaining information fed to them in traditional school, aren’t applying learning in ways they find meaningful, or aren’t developing the skills the 21st century (and 22nd) will demand of them, we see we really don’t have a lot to lose with making a change. You’ll find a lot of us on Educator Voices, a shared blog of teachers who “share and celebrate how we are pushing the boundaries, shaking up the system and challenging the status quo!”

In the end, we may worry about what might happen if we trust our kids, but what we should be worrying about is what might happen if we do not. The benefits and opportunities far outweigh the perceived risks of trusting our students, as Taryn writes, “to make mistakes, fail, run out of time, learn, reflect and, inevitably, grow.”

(by the way, I have to throw out that this totally has #TeacherMom applications, too. See one of my favorite parenting sites, LetGrow, to learn how we can better trust kids to own their own childhoods).

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7 Ways For Promoting More Choice within “Compulsory Schooling”

In John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down, he contends that compulsory education impacts children in the following ways:

#1: It confuses students.

“I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion.”

#2: It teaches kids to accept their rigid class & grade-level placement.

“The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic.”

#3: It makes them indifferent.

“The lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?”

#4: It makes them emotionally dependent.

“By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.”

#5: It makes them intellectually dependent.

“We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices.”

#6: It teaches provisional self-esteem.

“A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be.”

#7: It teaches them that they cannot hide, due to constant supervision.

“I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.”

While I don’t necessarily agree with all he writes, he makes a pretty solid case regarding these consequences of the institution of school. Despite the fact that he wrote it in 1991, we are still seeing similar consequences today.

by Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman, April 22, 2018

Nonetheless, here in 2018, we have so many opportunities to address these issues, even within the construct of “compulsory schooling.” I would like to visit how we might address each one today.

#1: Confusion Seek out inquiry & concept-based learning in which students start with the big concepts. Start with the student by provoking thinking and connections. See my list of provocations here on concepts ranging from empathy to color to how we organize ourselves. And check out Laura England’s fabulous recent example with her students’ big thinking.

#2: Accepting class/grade-level placement  Encourage student voice & global collaboration. Solicit their feedback & regularly meet in class meetings to ascertain their feelings about “how things are” and whether they have ideas on how it might be better. And if they want to talk with students or experts beyond their assigned grade level, facilitate that! See amazing examples here.

#3: Indifference Make time for student inquiry such as Genius Hour or Passion time for students to pursue personally meaningful learning over the longterm. See AJ Juliani’s guide.

#4: Emotional dependence → Reject trinkets & prizes in favor of intrinsic motivation. See this great example of how we can do so with regards to reading from Donalyn Miller.

#5: Intellectual dependence Put students in the driver’s seat as often as possible, from planning their day to self-regulation (see more details). 

#6: Provisional self-esteem  Implement Student-led conferences & blogging to allow students to clearly recognize and share their own learning.

#7: Lack of privacy  Ask what parents need (& otherwise view ourselves as support/appendages to the family, rather than family as an appendage of school).

There will always be limitations within the rigid public school system. However, especially as we make advances in technology that provides more opportunities for personalized learning and agency, there will always be ways to find flexibility to help learners take more ownership over their lives as learners. It may be the next best thing to fully self-directed learning.

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6 Gorgeous Picture Books Capturing Magical, Independent Childhoods #TeacherMom

One of my all-time favorite childhood books is Gyo Fujikawa’s “Oh, What A Busy Day!” What I found most magical about it as a child was observing all the ideas those kids pursued — without a single supervising adult.

As recently shared on the LetGrow site,

“Once upon a time, kids were part of the world. They were allowed to go places, do things, meet people. They were active.

For “active” now substitute “activities.” Kids participate in activities created for them, not by them. We take them, show them, teach them, protect them in a way that most of us — given the choice — would have rejected in favor of adventure.”

To me, this comes down to a major break-down of trust and community. Driven by our fears of all that might happen if we don’t do what is described above, we teach our kids that no one — not even our kids themselves — are worthy of trust.

That’s why I adore the following picture books. May they inspire you and your children to cultivate greater trust & recapture the magic of childhoods filled with healthy independence & adventure.

#1: Oh, What A Busy Day! by Gyo Fujikawa

Published in 1976, this picture book was ahead of its time with regards to diversity. It takes children through the possibilities of every facet of childhood, from make-believe, to fighting with friends, to enjoying the different seasons. I literally spent years trying to recall the author or title before I finally stumbled across our original beloved copy at my parents’ house — I immediately bought a reprint. Her own words describing how she felt about her audience sum up her beautiful work:

“In illustrating for children, what I relish most is trying to satisfy the constant question in the back of my mind–will this picture capture a child’s imagination? What can I do to enhance it further? Does it help to tell a story? I am far from being successful (whatever that means), but I am ever so grateful to small readers who find ‘something’ in any book of mine.”

#2: Everything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins & Emily Hughes

This lovely read came from Colby Sharp’s recommendation. I loved it so much that I bought it for my daughter’s birthday book as it reminded me of her sense of adventure & creativity. Kids are shown the many dreamy ways they can enjoy treehouse goodness — even if they are still waiting on a tree.

#3: Windows by Julia Denos & E.B. Goodale

Go for an evening walk with a young boy as he learns about his neighborhood through his own quiet observations. I love the way this captures how much kids can notice about their communities when given the chance.

#4: Bertolt  by Jacques Goldstyn

A book that will speak to the introvert’s soul. A child loves spending time with his tree, Bertolt, more than anything else in the world. His quiet observations and problem-solving will win over the hearts of all that love to get some alone-time.

#5: Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran & Barbara Cooney

My friend Faige Meller first introduced me to Roxaboxen, and it has been a family favorite ever since! The Goodreads reviews are packed with nostalgia, but I think it’s important to note that kids haven’t stopped being capable of creating such a retreat. We as adults need to just get out of their way more often to let them make it happen. “Roxaboxen is always waiting. Roxaboxen is always there.”

#6: Raft by Jim LaMarche

A story filled with appreciation and self-discovery. Kids will love following Nicky through the woods as he comes to love a summer of solitude at his grandmother’s house.

What about you? What are your favorite reads that promote the independent and magical childhoods we are all nostalgic for (and that we can again support)!

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