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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When the Internet Brings Us Something Amazing, Do We Share with our Kids? #TeacherMom

What kinds of conversations do you think OK Go music videos would generate with a 7 and 3 year old?

How about relative size of instruments to produce different sound? “What are they hitting to make music?”

The concept of sponsorship & investment. “Why are are they making such a big mess in that airplane?!”

The idea of stop motion.

(Be sure to check out their behind the scenes of the Upside Down & Inside Out music video. I especially loved the line: “The whole song is sort of around the idea of letting the unfamiliar feelings guide you rather than trying to figure everything out all the time.”)

When the Internet brings us that which truly inspires, do we share with our students? When we do, our roles evolve from consumers to creators as we co-construct wonder with kids. Who knows how the story of the mom who built a house via YouTube videos, or the boy who invented a device to help kids trapped in hot cars, influence the paths our kids take?

Access to one another’s stories is perhaps the most defining feature this technological era. Let’s leverage those stories to inspire and embolden our kids to the ever-greater possibilities of our day.

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10 Ways for Partnering With Parents #TeacherMom

A friend in my PLN, Aviva Dunsinger, recently wrote about the re-framing of her thinking regarding student vacations during the school year.

“…I think that we have a choice here: we can focus on what children lose due to their absence, or we can look at what they might gain. My thinking is that the stronger the home/school connection, the better the chance that educators, parents, and children can work together to get the most fzrom this away time.”

Her suggestions for offering resources to parents as they take their children on vacation included ideas like offering prompts to elicit discussions. What I appreciate most about these kinds of suggestions is that it sets aside the tone that we know what’s best for their children.

Particularly when we’re facing hostility, this can be an especially difficult task — after all, we are the professionals here. But when we work to view parents through a lens of partnership (and work to walk the talk), we actually preempt those power struggles we fear.

Here are some ideas that might help!

1. Harness social media (that your students’ parents use). Instagram, class Facebook accounts, Twitter — these can all give parents a window into your classroom, which will boost trust via transparency.

2. Share reminders via text to keep parents in the loop on events. Remind is a quality app for this purpose, sending group texts without exchanging actual phone numbers.

3. Seek their input on homework. Taryn Bond-Clegg wrote some time ago about how her approach to homework shifted:

“This year I was planning on having a zero homework policy. Then I realized that it doesn’t have to be an either or… it can be a both and. If I as the teacher mandate homework for all my students, I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value their time after school for other activities and wish not to have homework. If I as the teacher outlaw homework I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value extended practice of the academic skills we explore in class.”

Check out the inquiry her class conducted with regards to ascertaining their homework needs.

4. Leverage their expertise. Invite them into the classroom as experts. Assign students to collect data based on parent experiences for various units.

5. Consider getting rid of reading logs. I remember a conversation with a parent of a bookworm student. She asked if she could just pre-sign all their reading logs on the year because her child definitely exceeded the daily minute requirement. Today, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really necessary to put parents (and their children) through this kind of hoop-jumping. It also seems like a good opportunity to build trust, even as we continue to encourage at-home reading. (see Thinking about Those Reading Minutes & Logs)

6. Stay curious. We may have “seen it all.” But families continue to be incredibly diverse with varying needs. Is there one assumption we can drop in favor of asking what resources we might help provide? For instance, we may love our tech-savvy homework assignment, but if you have families that are quite worried about excessive screen time, how might you use it as an opportunity to meet needs?

7. Catch ’em being good. Work to ensure that you communicate more regularly about what their children are doing well than what they are struggling with. This starts by emailing early in the school year if at all possible.

8. Write positive notes to their children. Conveying to their children that we see and appreciate them as individuals is one of the best ways to build relationships with their parents.

9. Organize volunteering. My child’s teacher has a handy sheet-protected class list with boxes you can check as we come in to read with the children. Simple yet efficient way to maximize the time I spend in the classroom.

10. Try to attend the occasional extracurricular event. If anyone understands time constraints, I sure do! But I can attest that when it comes to particularly tricky relationships, attending that game or performance outside of school can do wonders for your rapport.

Yes, we’re professionals. But we’re more likely to have parents respect our expertise when we demonstrate that we respect theirs as their children’s first and longest teachers.

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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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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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21st Century Literacy Opportunities You Probably Overlook #TeacherMom #IMMOOC

I’ve decided to join this year’s #IMMOOC as I finally read George Couros’ book, Innovator’s Mindset. I’m looking forward to making new connections with teachers around the world and to finding ways to push my thinking and comfort zone over the next 5 weeks!

Here’s a passage that has stood out to me most for this week’s reading:

“We are spending so much time telling our students about what they can’t do that we have lost focus on what we can do. Imagine that if every time you talked about the ability to write with a pencil, you only focused on telling kids to not stab one another with the tool. What would you really inspire in your students? Creativity? Unlikely. Fear? Almost certainly.”

It seems that the older my kids get, the more often I hear about the dangers of screen time, online predators, and cyberbullying. Rarely if ever do I hear parents share the amazing ways they are engaging in technology with their kids.

Apart from this being a missed opportunity to build positive associations with the possibility tech affords, it also misses out on some serious opportunities for literacy (both traditional and digital).

As rare as it is to hear about the positive examples among parents, I actually observed an impromptu example just this weekend as my mother-in-law sat at the computer with my nephew. They were searching out some fun gadgets together on Amazon, but what quickly caught my attention was the language my mother-in-law was using with my nephew. As they looked at new products, she helped him scroll down the page, saying things like, “When I’m looking at something I think I might like to buy, I look first at the 1-star reviews. That helps me find out what I might not like about it.”

I listened as they read the reviews out loud together and then discussed whether they thought those would be relevant issues. And as they navigated new products, it was clear my nephew was quickly becoming more discerning about what he was viewing.

Who would have thought Amazon could be rich soil for literacy? But I guess if we’re paralyzed by fear, we’re not exactly on the lookout for ways we might invite our kids to join us in our screen use.

Now, to be clear, if our kids’ device use is also limited to moments we “give in” due to begging or boredom, that’s also a missed opportunity. The key is in how we are engaging with our kids, and in positive, practical ways. I’m looking forward to finding more ways we can show kids what they can do with tech, both as parents and as teachers.

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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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