“It Is Never Too Late to Be Who You Might Have Been” #TeacherMom

Our local library has done it again: ignited my 6 year-old’s fervor for a new creative project. Thanks to one of their recent display, this time it’s fairy gardens.

Armed with books, photos, and an entire under-the-stairs nook of sundries she has squirreled away, she literally dug in, starting with removing old flowers:

As she concluded phase one, she announced: “I am awesome. I have a cute brain. I know how to make things. I’ve been practicing, and when I grow up, I will teach everyone that I know how to make a fairy ring.”

It’s the kind of confidence you wish you could store up in bottles and give away to all.

Later that day, I participated in a trending Twitter hashtag, #IfICouldMakeTimeStandStill, with my daughter’s earlier declaration still on my mind:

I have seen it with too many of my 5th graders, who’d often been expert hoop-jumpers for so long by that point that they were initially baffled by any suggestion to take more ownership over their learning. To imagine my daughter’s beautiful innate curiosity and confidence to be similarly reduced almost brings physical pain.

But before I sink fully into despair at what might be, I cling to the places I find hope.

I find hope in the growing research on the growth mindset and how beautifully resilient we as humans can be.

I find hope in the many teachers who are dedicated to changing their practices and giving their students greater voice and choice over their own learning.

I find hope in witnessing how, even when our confidence seems all but extinguished by human judgement and shame, we still manage to reignite curiosity, confidence, and creativity, forged anew with our life experiences.

And I find hope in knowing that greater heights yet unimagined await both my daughter and I as we engage, encourage, and dream together. Which reminds me, I have some fairy gardening to do…

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3 Reasons 1st Grade Isn’t Too Early to Teach Digital Citizenship #TeacherMom

For a kid whose internet use is still limited almost exclusively to Netflix, I’ve been surprised just how enthralled my first grader has been by White Ribbon Internet Safety Week. I’m sure that this has more than a little to do with all the prizes her school is raffling off for participation, but still.

She came home eager to chat about all the Internet safety “power boosts.” What surprised me even more than her enthusiasm was her ability to make important connections, even without the context of full internet use.

So today’s #TeacherMom post is a follow-up on my post entitled, “3 Reasons High School’s Too Late to Teach Digital Citizenship.”

#1: It helps them build intuition and confidence.

In the course of our conversation, my daughter and I watched a Youtube video about cyberbullying that featured some boys taking a picture of a classmate, adding unkind captions, and then circulating it through the school. When we finished, my daughter told me about how an older student asked to take a selfie with her at Halloween, and she wondered if that had been cyberbullying.

In that moment, the protective mama-bear side of me just wanted to blurt, “Never let anyone take your picture without permission [because cyberbullying]!” But instead, we discussed that moment in the video when the boys sneakily snapped that girl’s photo and walked away laughing. I asked her how that moment felt, and how it compared to how she felt when the student asked to take a picture with her in their Halloween costumes.

She concluded that the older student had not intended any harm in her situation, and was able to begin to learn about identifying and trusting her own gut feelings. And since I know I won’t be there in most of her future moments of uncertainty, I’m grateful that she is learning such discernment now.

(I also loved that she made a great connection here with a phrase from her teacher: “Hurtful or helpful?”)

#2: It helps them learn to be true to themselves.

Given that my daughter doesn’t yet have much of an online presence, it was a bit confusing for her when we discussed the “power boosts” that involved friends doing or saying silly things online. But we were able to start the discussion about how some people think that their internet lives are different than their “real” lives, and so they do and say things online that they would never say in-person. I loved that we are already building the foundation that we should “ALWAYS be the same in person as you are online” (LivBits, an inspiring young digital citizen I recently wrote about). As a result, she doesn’t even have time yet to develop the notion that her online self will differ from her in-person self.

#3: It gives the opportunity to model our own digital lives. 

Because the White Ribbon week focuses on safety for young kids, one of the power boosts says, “I will use tech to connect with my REAL-LIFE friends. People online are not always who they say they are.” In this context, we discussed how there are people who try to “make friends” online and get kids to meet with them to cause harm. However, I also got to tell my daughter about how now, as an adult, I get to connect with and learn from teachers all over the world that I haven’t met. But we also returned again to safety measures that I take now as well.

When my daughter wants to play outside with friends in our neighborhood, we talk both about the safety and the possibilities. I am grateful for the opportunity to lay the same foundation for her digital life.

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There is Room for Us All. There is Room for Us All. There is Room for…

What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage.  Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me.  Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters. ~Allison Stanger

These are the words of a professor who participated in an attempted campus event for Charles Murray to speak (attempted because chanting, chair/window-banging, fire alarm-pulling, etc. ultimately prevented his voice from being heard).

Most, if not all, teachers I know advocate for the principle that we teach our students how to think, not what to think. They invite debate, research, critical thinking, and civil discourse.

So, what is happening here? What is getting so broken when assumptions and hatred win over open-mindedness and compassion?

I believe it comes down to dehumanizing those that seem on “the other side,” even as we work to dispel intolerance. And while I want to make it clear that I don’t believe teachers are to blame for this occurrence, I believe there are some important questions we can ask ourselves to ensure we are, at the very least, not contributing to the problem:

  • Do our students get the sense that there’s a “right answer” when discussing social justice issues?
  • Do we make more room for social issues that align with our personal ideology than with a wider scope (ie, issues facing only one group, a specific political agenda, etc)?
  • When there are misconceptions, do we work to familiarize our students with the individuals around whom those misconceptions center? (see a great example of Pernille Ripp’s class Skyping with a refugee).
  • When we direct our students to research material, do we ensure it is as neutral as possible, or at the very least, balanced?
  • When we disagree with our students’ (and usually their parents’) opinions, how do we respond? What measures do we take to ensure a safe exchange of ideas to promote learning for all (see lessons I learned when parents of one of my 5th grader started pulling their student early each day to miss our read-aloud that involved race)?
  • And perhaps most important of all: When we encounter opinions that sharply clash with our own, do we ourselves start to define that student/parent/colleague more by that opinion than by their humanity? In other words, do we fixate more on how we differ than how much we share in common?

As I have continued to ponder this matter, I realize that I keep seeing this message again and again — that there is genuine power in focusing on what makes each of us human. Here are a few examples from recent resources:

#1: From “Why do Labels Matter?” by SoulPancake

“If we get curious about each other and don’t stick in our bubble, I think that actually can save the world…Because that is where you get to the unifying things…You realize, oh, someone who has been criticized their whole life for what they look like — all of a sudden I remember the places where I’ve been criticized and I go, We have common ground there. So in a sense, we are all the same, but it’s through the differences that you get there.”

#2: “Drawing a Line in the Sand” from Seth Godin’s blog

Problems aren’t linear, people don’t fit into boxes. Lines are not nuanced, flexible or particularly well-informed. A line is a shortcut, a lazy way to deal with a problem you don’t care enough about to truly understand.

#3: “The Tough Work of Improving School Culture” by Brendan Keenan

via Edutopia by Brendan Keenan

#4: Trailer for Accidental Courtesy by Daryl Davis

“For the past few decades the black musician, actor and author has made it his mission to befriend people in hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan by calmly confronting them with the question:

“How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?””

Even when we vehemently disagree, there is room for us all. Because of our humanity. And this is a message our students deserve to have both protected and modeled in every classroom.

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What Happens When The Author Becomes A Person #TeacherMom

I admit it: when it comes to reading to squirrelly toddlers, I’ve cut corners. I’ve condensed paragraphs. I’ve skipped pages. I’ve proclaimed happily-ever-after’s within 17 seconds flat.

For the sake of packing in as much story as possible before a cardboard box won over audience attention, I even used to omit reading the author’s name. Fortunately, as my oldest’s patience for storytime grew, noting the author’s name was my first step in making literary reparations.

I would never have guessed the ramifications of such a small course-correction.

First, I noticed that my daughter started “reading” the authors’ names, too.

Next, she started memorizing said authors’ names and would make requests at the library accordingly (“I want a Kevin Henkes book! Can we read Mo Willems? How about Steven Kellogg?”). She started trotting right over to their shelves, recalling the location of those authors’ books even though she was a long way yet from reading.

When she eventually started writing her own stories, she was always sure to list herself as the author, too. And the illustrator. And she made sure everyone in her world knew that she wanted to be an author/illustrator when she grew up.

These days, the author is often as much a part of the conversations about books as the stories they’ve written. I tell her that I think she’ll love Clementine because I read Pax and loved Sara Pennypacker’s style. I show her other Shannon Hale fairy tales when she kicks off Princess in Black. We even got excited when we saw that Brendan Wenzel was the illustrator and author for the first time with “They All Saw a Cat,” (having already enjoyed his illustrations in “Beastly Babies” and “One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree”).

In short, the authors and illustrators have become people. We admire not just the work, but the people themselves — people with unique voices, styles, and humor. We get excited when they write a new book, not just because it’s a new book we enjoy, but because it’s something new from that beloved writer.

This practice of spotlighting the author carried over into my classroom, too, with discussions like, “Did you see what Charlotte Zolotow did in that poem?” or “How did Gail Carson Levine’s use of a super comma work there?” We started to notice the deliberate strategies and craft behind what made the writing magical. As a result, we started to see ourselves as capable of developing those strategies, too, recognizing the fact that every author once started where we are now.

When authors come to life, so does our own self-identity as writers. Because if they are real people instead of an abstract idea, then we can see the possibilities for ourselves, too.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Signs of 21st Century Teaching to Watch For During Conferences #TeacherMom

Those who have followed this blog for some time know how much I support the student-led parent teacher conference. And while it can be an indicator of student ownership and a 21st century teaching mindset, its absence does not necessarily rule those things out, either.

Last week, my 1st grader’s parent teacher conference with her wonderful teacher proved the latter. Here are 5 signs I observed that showed me that essential 21st century teaching elements, such as student ownership, voice, and choice, are thriving in her classroom:

1. A commitment to learning over “doing school” or compliance. I loved listening to the discussion about how my daughter could work on “sitting still at the carpet.” Her teacher clarified, “I don’t think we should call it ‘sitting still’ because I’m not really worried about that. It’s more when it really disrupts classmates with the laying down and sticking legs straight up in the air — that sort of thing.” I loved that she was making it clear that this was not an issue of control/compliance, but of trying to create an environment where everyone could learn and thrive (and I couldn’t help giggling internally at the tone that this was an easy mistake to make for a person to not realize that sticking one’s legs in the air might be problematic. Ah, first grade…)

2. Creative resources/differentiation are sought out. Instead of leaving the above issue with an “ok, well, please work on that,” we all brainstormed ways we could help. That’s when the teacher pulled out a sensory seat cushion and asked my daughter if she’d like to try it out, which she did right then and there.

3. Student voice is valued. After my daughter decided the cushion would be useful, she was encouraged to identify and articulate its purpose and expectations; there was no lecture on responsibility because it was clear that her teacher trusted her to establish that for herself.

4. Process is celebrated. When they explained a new math problem-of-the-day, the teacher wrote up an example and gave my daughter time to work on it. When she had finished and answered correctly, her teacher didn’t just move on from there. Instead, she asked my daughter to explain to us her thinking. We were able to learn so much about how my daughter is currently thinking about ten frames and other math processes.

5. Students are seen as individuals first. Data was present. Valuable assessment was present. Accountability was present. But none of those things took precedent over my daughter’s value as a person. Her teacher recognized her strengths and her opportunities for growth, and it was clear she had invested in building a positive, trusting relationship.

I am so grateful for teachers like this. Who refuse to let the time-crunch stand in the way of developing meaningful relationships. Who seek the balance of a smoothly-running classroom without feeling like they must have rigid control. Who trust their students to do more than just follow instructions at all times. To this teacher and teachers everywhere like this, thank you!

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Weighing the Pressures of Preparing for the “Next Level”

“They have no study skills.”

“They’re so unprepared for college studying, like organizing lecture notes.”

“Those high school teachers are letting my kids retake tests, and it’s making them lazy.”

These were a few sentiments I heard among a few other parents (one of whom was a college professor) while waiting to pick up our kids. That teachers just aren’t sufficiently preparing students for the next level.

This has had me asking myself tough questions ever since. A lot of them.

Like this one: Amid all my soap-box preaching about student ownership, what if, after all we do to teach our children to own their learning, they find that somewhere down the line, ownership is impossible?

When we try to focus more on powerful learning & less on “doing school,” are we doing our students a disservice for later expectations?

Where’s the line between building our kids up for what’s coming, and focusing on all their developmental needs now?

Or even, if I want my 1st grader to someday get into the university of her dreams, shouldn’t I do all I can to help her get “ahead of the curve” starting now? 

But then…

I see articles like this that suggest that kids who wait to start kindergarten for a year have fewer problems with ADHD & hyperactivity. Which makes me think (especially since kindergarten is the new first grade) that all this prep for the next level is perhaps taking its toll already.

And I see posts like Taryn Bond-Clegg’s sharing her dream of a system that supports rather than hinders a culture of student agency. Which makes me think that every action that focuses more on the here-&-now of our student’s needs helps us move closer toward a better system.

And then I see articles like this that remind us all that best practices are always the bottom line for the present:

We do not sacrifice good instruction because those in upper levels are not there yet. Instead, we employ what we know works, and we spend time mentoring those above us in what we do.

 

I still don’t have all the answers. But in the end, maybe college level study-skills can just — wait until college…

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Taming Those Housekeeping Routines #TeacherMom

When we moved to our new home two years ago, I vowed to stick to the plan for keeping things tidy. It went something like this:

  • Mondays: Deep clean the kitchen
  • Tuesdays: Sweep and mop the floors
  • Wednesdays: Clean the bathrooms
  • Thursdays: Vacuum
  • Fridays: Laundry and dusting

My reasoning was that if I kept to a regular routine, I would keep things “covered” and under control. There would be no backup of forgotten chores, because it was already built into my everyday. Seems pretty reasonable, right?

I did manage to stick with it — for a few months.

But then life happened. My husband’s surgery, another difficult pregnancy, welcoming a newborn — gradually, the cleaning routine fell apart, and I instead had to go with sporadic cleaning according to my limited energy and time.

Now, the way I see it, I have two choices: I can look at this as a failure & berate myself into getting back into the groove, OR I can reevaluate my approach & look for learning opportunities and extended applications.

I’m going to go ahead with the latter.

Trying to turn everything into a routine in an attempt to keep things “covered” and in control often leads to things becoming…:

1. Arbitrary/Redundant: Attention getting divided up equally among unequal tasks.

2. Limiting: A reverse effect where rather than getting life more in control, we wind up feeling more controlled by the very routines we create.

3. Rigid: Reduced tendency to notice when things aren’t working, or when there’s a better way.

Routine-izing life to preempt failure is often an appealing temptation, and in far more spheres than just housekeeping. I see it in education, too:

1. Arbitrary/Redundant: Early education programs that devote one whole week to each letter to cover the alphabet, though it’s more logical to dedicate much more time to trickier, high-frequency letters like vowels (and a lot less time to those rarer letters like Q, X, & Z).

2. Limiting: Reluctance for teachers to adopt more student-centered inquiry approaches for fear of deviating from/not covering the plan.

3. Rigid: Invariably covering history in chronological order year after year, rather than looking other possibilities such as approaching it by concept

None of this is to say that routines don’t have their place. I wouldn’t give up the weekly routine of class meetings any more than I would give up daily tooth-brushing. Furthermore, my original cleaning routine now informs what needs to happen; it’s just more fluid as I evaluate factors such as urgency, whether we’re having house guests, etc.

But in the end, we should be wary of any routine we construct that causes our practices to become arbitrary, redundant, limiting, or rigid.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto