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…

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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.

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10 Favorite Board Books #TeacherMom

As I geared up to attend two back-to-back baby showers, the familiar gifting dread gathered. I’ve never enjoyed shopping, and my practical taste never looks very cute in pastel tissue paper.

Just when I was about to go the gift-registry route, it hit me. Books. BOARD BOOKS! I might not be able to pick a onesie that gets me terribly excited, but books have me geeking out on a regular basis.

In the past, many board books have tended to just be sturdier versions of regular picture books, sans several pages. Or else they have consisted of overly syrupy or didactic text paired with equally uninteresting illustrations. In short, most board books just haven’t been fun to read.

But as long as babies tend to be skillful paper-shredders, we need board books, and we need ones that will make parents and babies actually look forward to storytime together.

Here are ten of my current favorites:

The Epic Yarns books by Jack & Holman Wang (and especially the Star Wars books for my Force-loving family) are delightfully unique. Each page consists of a photo of a detailed set crafted out of wool, along with a single word to capture the essence of that moment.

All Board! National Parks: A Wildlife Primer by Kevin & Haily Meyers is perfect for all parents who want to cultivate enthusiasm for the outdoors from the cradle. Each page takes you to a different national park, also featuring animals found in that location. I also love how the last page displays their animal tracks.

No list of board books would ever be complete without Sandra Boynton. Moo Baa La La La has delighted all three of my kids with its bouncy tempo, hilarious farm animals, and of course, pigs singing instead of oinking. The “No, no, you say, that isn’t right!” with enough high-pitched expression even gets the infant grinning every time.

Angela DiTerlizzi published Some Bugs a couple years ago, and I was delighted when the board book version rolled out last year. It includes every one of the delightful original pages filled with gorgeous illustrations and fun rhymes. Given the spare text, it includes a surprising amount to learn about bugs, too!

Jennifer Adams’ BabyLit books have me especially geeking out. They are the perfect way to introduce young readers to classic literature as they share passages with gorgeous illustrations. I’ve read most of them at my local library, but The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Midsummer Night’s Dream top my list of favorites.

Ashley Evanson’s Hello, World books, such as this London Book of Opposites, are fresh concept books with a colorful view of the most iconic features of cities around the world.

Eric Carle‘s books are classics that aren’t diminished in board book form. I don’t see the cadence of Brown Bear, Brown Bear ever wearing off.

A is for Atom by Greg Paprocki is a nostalgic walk down memory lane, both with the ideas that defined the 50’s, and the mid-century-styled illustrations to match.

Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Buarino and Steven Kellogg is one more classic treasure that will never get old. My kids love guessing the animal to match the rhyming clues as the baby llama talks with various animals to find his mama.

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“Let Them Fail” Is Not Uniform #TeacherMom

The benefits of failure are becoming more and more widely discussed. Perfectionism is getting the boot it deserves. Messy learning is finally gaining the acknowledgement that it’s due. And I’m thrilled!

However, I’ve noticed another trend along these lines that’s of a little more concern to me, though it can be tricky to spot.

To me, it’s in the form of these signs. Or in the form of comments that take stories like this one & declare that this is how it should be for all children to teach responsibility.

Like I’ve said before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these signs or with this story. In fact, in many circumstances, these are great examples of allowing our children to fail in order to help them grow.

 

What makes this tricky is that allowing our kids to fail does not look the same for all children for all circumstances. But sometimes, we make it look like it is.

Which is problematic because then you have parents and teachers who feel like weighing the circumstances is no longer an option–that they must always apply “tough-love” in order to allow their children to learn from failure. And that to do otherwise is an automatic fast-track to entitlement.

It’s problematic because it sweeps away the messy process of working one-on-one with a child, leaning more in favor of one-size-fits-all policies.

And it’s problematic because it can get us focusing too heavily (sometimes still exclusively) on the behavior aspect of failure.

Now, I support and appreciate approaches like Love & Logic. But it’s SO important to remember that relationships are complex and must be approached on an individual basis. What might be the suitable consequence for one child in one context might not be for another. Anything that encourages us to stop listening and start mandating should give us pause. 

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My #OneWord2017: Synthesis

Have you ever looked up the definition of compartmentalization? One Wikipedia it reads:

“Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.”

My translation: compartmentalization is driven by fear. And I’m done.

I recently came across a quote (and for the life of me, I can’t remember where it came from or who said it, so if you know, please share) that went something like this: “I’ve spent much of my life trying to compartmentalize it. I’m ready to try to synthesize instead.”

With each day since then, this notion has grown and swelled within my mind and my heart. And it makes my 2017 one-word goal an easy choice: synthesize.

The longer I reflect and write, the more I recognize the inter-connected nature of this world. I think this is the reason my favorite blogging days are my provocation and #TeacherMom posts.

For the former, I gather scraps of inspiring resources scattered across the digital world, weaving them into broader concepts. For the latter, I gather scraps of inspiring moments scattered across my days as a mom, weaving them into broader teaching principles.

Opportunities for learning and growth are everywhere. As I work to step back and mindfully embrace the ebb and flow of life — the diaper changes, the lunch boxes, the library trips, even the tantrums — it all starts to join into a larger tapestry.

As I synthesize instead of compartmentalize, the most precious principles in my life become more pronounced and accessible: authenticity, resilience, courage, compassion, kindness. Everything begins to work toward a greater, self-perpetuating whole, rather than getting piecemealed into an eternal, competing to-do list.

My word is synthesis. What’s yours?

A Little Less Filtered #TeacherMom

As our family settled in a few weeks ago to watch a show together, my toddler’s attention was captured by an icon for an National Geographic animal documentary. And that’s how we found ourselves learning about baboons’ alpha hierarchy and frogs’ defense mechanisms that night.

What surprised me most was how the show’s benefits for my son went well beyond simply learning about animal facts. It was the engagement. It was the conversation. It was the connection. As he soaked up every word and every shot, he asked questions, he placed vocabulary in context, and he play-acted out his observations.

This experience had me reflecting about two ideas.

The first is that we can more frequently go to the source for learning. With all the guidelines and curriculum and expert recommendations, we as adults often feel the need to contrive and filter to maximize our kids’ learning. It’s like we think that if we can pack in enough ABC’s and numbers and cooperation messages in one show (or workbook, etc), it’s like a multivitamin we can feed our kids to fill in the gaps of their education (and no, this is not to bash those shows–we love Sesame Street around here, remember?).

Yet the reality is, we don’t have to rely on such concoctions for learning. True, when it comes to science and history, we’re usually already many steps removed from the source–after all, it’s not like we can take a field trip to the Serengeti or World War II or the Moon. But, often thanks to modern technology and social networking, we can get ourselves and our children closer than ever (like leveraging Google Street View for virtual exploration, or following this Twitter account that narrates WWII in real time, or exploring this Interactive Lunar Guide by ESA).

The second thought: when we more directly allow our children’s interests to take the lead, richer learning follows. Learning is to be had wherever our students’ interests lead us. Like I said above, my son wasn’t just learning about animal facts. He was learning vocabulary, speaking and listening skills, and even pre-reading skills through his imaginative play.

More importantly, when we try to turn this on its head–that is, force student interest on our agenda for “learning”–the results are poorer anyway. As Marcia L. Tate writes in Reading & Language Arts Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites:

“…there is actually a physiological reason for whether students choose to comprehend instruction. The basal ganglia acts like a policeman that protects the brain from distracting input. Information that has been selected as worthy of being learned flows through fibers back to the thalamus and on to areas of the brain where information can be interpreted (Nevills & Wolfe, 2009).”

Of course, with a class of 30+ students, it is certainly a challenge to meet our students where they are in their interests, which is why boxed programs with promises for perfect differentiation and solutions to all our students’ reading comprehension needs are tempting.

While we’re going to keep on watching intermittent episodes of Sesame Street around here, in the future, it will be less about meeting some kind of learning quota and more about family entertainment. And I look forward to getting better at recognizing learning opportunites as they come through my children’s interests.

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto