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?

Sharing PD Learning with Students

Professional development meetings are usually an aside, right? We often want to hurry and get them over with so we can get back to our classrooms and students.

But what if we deliberately embraced them as part of our learning process? And no, I don’t mean a general, feel-good, kiss-up-to-the-admin kind of embrace.

I mean, what if we identified one genuine learning moment, and then (here’s the important part) shared that learning with our class when we returned?

It was easy for me the first time I did this, simply because that particular professional development training had been a particularly engaging and enlightening session.

My students had always asked where I’d been when I returned from meetings. But this time, rather than my usual quick response of “meetings,” so we could get back into our learning, I opened up:

(them) “Mrs. Wade, where did you go?”

(me) “A meeting for teachers to learn about how to become better teachers. Did you know we do that? And guess what?! Do you know what I just learned about? Reading workshop! Want to try it?”

My enthusiasm was contagious, and they were instantly curious. I couldn’t have planned a more perfect opportunity to introduce the very concept we’d been encouraged to start implementing.

I continued sharing with them about how I’d learned that we could model reading workshop just like we do writer’s workshop; namely, a mini lesson, guided practice, and wrap up. I shared how I’d discovered that they can make connections during reading workshop that will help them strengthen their writing, and vice versa. And I shared how excited I was because discovering and practicing reading strategies in this way seemed much more interesting than reading comprehension worksheets.

When I asked them if they wanted to give it a shot, they were all-in. And when we actually started, we kept the open dialogue going. I would say things like, “What did you think? How did that compare to the way we used to do that? How could we improve this process?

There was an openness, an energy, and a collective commitment to make this work. And I believe this stemmed from trust. Because the truth was, I was a novice at reading workshop. I had just barely learned about how to implement it.  So I know that had I instead pretended to be the expert, rolling it out in a grand introduction of authority, we would have lost that precious element.

When we let our students see our authentic learning process, we build trust and respect and cooperation because they know we’re in this arena, too. And when we let them in on the vision (even if all the little pieces are not yet in place), they are more willing to bring it to life together.  Our students need our genuine, messy learning process more than they need a polished and perfect appearance of control.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Converting Frustration to Teaching Moments #TeacherMom

Last week, I asked my 6 year-old to get something from the car. I knew the item had fallen under the seats, so I added the instruction, “Make sure you look all over!”

She came back empty-handed, telling me it wasn’t there. Of course, with mom omnipotence (momnipotence?), I knew that item was indeed in the car and that she had simply not looked thoroughly enough.

Anyhow, I was ready to heave my usual sigh and go look for it myself when it occurred to me that “look all over” is a very vague and abstract concept for a 6 year-old. My mind jumped to an old-school Sesame Street episode featuring Grover we had recently watched:

I referenced Grover’s silly song about prepositions, telling her, “Try checking one more time, only this time, be sure to be like Grover and look ‘Around…over…under…and through’ all the seats.”

Though she did not end up finding the object during her second search either, she nevertheless took much longer and was clearly far more thorough (in the end I discovered it had fallen down into a remote and camouflaged corner).

As I reflected on that small teaching opportunity, I realized how often I take for granted what I think my kids ought to be able to do, yielding to frustration rather than teaching. In my classroom, I generally made it a point to help my students explicitly identify, “what does _____ look/sound/feel like” (ie, what does working respectfully in pairs look/sound/feel like?).

Yet there were still moments when I felt frustrated by shortcomings I felt my fifth graders should just know by now (penmanship, writing in complete sentences, group work skills). The reality was usually that they simply needed more modeling, more support, more patience.

I hope this #TeacherMom moment will help me better recognize those learning opportunities with my own children and my future students.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Featured Images Taught Me About Creativity

Stock photos have always made me giggle a bit. I think that’s why I fell in love with My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Quinoa (I’ve included an example below in case you are not yet familiar with Tiffany Beveridge’s Pinterest wit):

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Yet when I first started blogging, I found myself using them because, well, isn’t that what bloggers do?

Thankfully, that ended the day it finally dawned on me that, at best, they were doing nothing for the meaning I wanted to convey (and at worst, they were a possible detraction). This revelation had me ready to ditch featured images in general.

Fortunately, that was around the time I also discovered Death To The Stock Photo, a company committed to sharing high quality, artistic images.

I was immediately impressed. Though (because?) there were no shots of smiling students raising their hands, I sensed an opportunity.

My initial thought was that using these photos would enhance the general aesthetic of the blog. That certainly was an instant effect.

But over time, I realized that something more was happening. I had gone from thinking that posts about classrooms/students required images of classrooms/students, to realizing that when I featured an image that I found genuinely inspiring, it matters.

It matters because it makes me think about making connections that are less obvious (such as this image of a tool display to go along with my post on curation).

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It matters because it makes me wonder. Unlike stock photos, each of these images clearly tell a story, and I love imagining what those stories might be (like the image below that I used for a post on refugees).

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And it matters because it makes me feel. The photos are no longer filler. They have real soul and significance and authenticity (I really loved selecting this image from the “Tactile” photopack for my post on helping students discover more personal meaning).

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All of this makes me consider how we go about teaching and learning. 

Are there any practices we do arbitrarily?

Are there ways we can dig deeper to get away from practices that feel too obvious and spoon-fed?

Are there ways we can use passion and creativity to invite rather than push learning more often?

Can we turn more often to sources that make us think, wonder, and feel?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Meeting Your Students’ Authentic Reading Needs with Goodreads

I recently started reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Two quotes stand out sharply to me. The first:

“I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.”

Amen!

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person who family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. My identity as a person is so entwined with my love of reading and books that I cannot separate the two.”

The best literacy teachers I know of are these kinds of readers. And they do it without the “corporate machinery” of literacy instruction.

It’s obvious why, isn’t it? For one thing, they are able to give timely book recommendations tailored to students’ needs and interests; their kids don’t need those drill-and-kill comprehension worksheets when they are already talking excitedly about that book you helped them find! More importantly, these teachers have thoroughly shaken off the hypocrisy of teaching students to embrace something they themselves do not. They keep literary enthusiasm front and center, regarding books as familiar friends, rather than as benchmarks to “pass off.” They are the embodiment of those “not the filling…a pail, but the lighting…a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Our literacy teachers should be the best readers around.

Yet, for me personally, I admit that I have felt overwhelmed by these prodigious teacher-readers. I love reading, but I have limitations that make me worry that I wouldn’t be able to meet my students’ needs as well as they can.

For me, those limitations here boil down to problems: #1) I’m a slow reader. #2) I have a terrible memory for book titles.

Enter Goodreads. Though I’ve had an account for years, I’d always considered it to be too cumbersome to use regularly. But the two features below have at last shown me how my efforts there can be richly rewarded and magnified to meet my students’ and my own reading needs.

Problem #1: Slow reading 

I don’t read the volume of books that these teacher-readers that I admire do. Without that volume, it’s difficult to offer suggestions that sufficiently meet their needs and interests. But as I sort books that I have read into custom digital shelves on Goodreads (see below), it generates recommendations based on the genres/levels of those shelves. This allows me to leverage the reading/reviews of millions of other readers to help me get that perfect book in my students’ hands.

Problem #2: Memory for titles

For the still-many books I am able to read, the titles tend to swirl together over time, making it difficult to pull one out for a timely student recommendation. Goodreads solves this problem by allowing me to sort and “shelve” these books into a personalized library with custom categories.

To an outsider, my many shelves may seem like madness, but for me, I know they will help me pick out the trees in the forest, so to speak. Some of my current shelves include:

  • 5th grade: Friendship (titles like WonderFlora and UlyssesThe Inquisitor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog, Three Times Lucky…)
  • 5th grade: Other-Worldly-Whimsical (The Magician’s Elephant, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, The Wild Robot)
  • 5th grade: Overcoming Odds (Rules, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Holes)
  • Picture books: Challenging Status Quo (“In Mary’s Garden,” “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” “Cinder Edna,” “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music”)
  • Picture books: Loss and Emotion (“The Heart and the Bottle,” “Boats for Papa,” “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgois”)
  • Picture books: Unexpected Endings & Humor (“Stuck,” “The Skunk,” “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew”)

Bonus feature: Integrate your search with your local library’s database!

Today, I added a button to my account that takes me from a book page on Goodreads directly to the book on my library’s online catalog. This allows me to check availability and to place a hold that much more easily! Here’s a link to help you learn how to add the button. If you run into any trouble, just contact Goodread’s customer support and they will add your library for you so you can select it from their list! 🙂

Whatever your strategy–whether through Goodreads or more regularly scheduled library visits–our students will reap the benefits when we choose to commit to move toward greater authenticity as readers ourselves.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Collaboration: #BetterTogether

I recently came across an excellent post by Mr Jonathan So about reflection. One particularly honest and humorous line jumped out to me:

“…reflection for me started off as that one off we did with our kids or some fancy worksheet that made me look like I was reflecting but you know you weren’t.”

We are so good at this as human beings, aren’t we? Doing that token, “See-I’m-doing-it” thing without really gaining any (lasting) benefit from it (I’m looking at you, underused gym passes!). But we’re also really good at seeing right through the smokescreen; we know when something is really making a difference in our lives.

I feel like collaboration can be a lot like this. Most people laud its benefits, but when it comes down to it, how often do our work relationships feel truly symbiotic and meaningful? I know I have definitely been guilty of going through the motions to look more collaboration-y than I really felt in the past, especially when I didn’t feel like my ideas held a lot of value to others.

However, lately, I’ve been thinking about examples I’ve seen of collaboration with truly beautiful results. Many of my favorite Youtubers often come together to enhance one another’s talents, work, and reach. For instance:

Some might view this as simple commercial tactics. But I appreciate the collaboration for two key reasons: #1–it yields new creations that would never had been possible if everyone continued to be islands unto themselves. #2–I receive the opportunity to connect with new artists, innovators, and ideas through individuals I already admire and respect.

As I’ve contemplated all this, more examples of teachers achieving this #BetterTogether concept have caught my eye:

  • The concept behind this site‘s “Give one, Take one” for Hyperdocs lessons.
  • This co-written blog post by Cori Orlando and Kevin Feramisco.

Most recently, I have decided accept a challenge to work more closely with other educational bloggers to help us draw together, improve our own blogs, and benefit our readers. I’m looking forward to greater levels of authentic and meaningful collaboration through this challenge!

Here are their blogs. Take a look!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Sometimes, Nothing Goes According to Plan, & That’s OK #TeacherMom

Sometimes, the toddler refuses to say he’s finished with his cookie, but also refuses to take more than one infinitesimal nibble at a time.

Sometimes, the baby decides the whole afternoon nap thing (which happens to be your blogging time) isn’t his cup of tea anymore.

Sometimes, your first grader just needs a tea party–and by golly, you need one, too.

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We make these rhythms and routines for ourselves, hoping to create a sense of order and achievement out of each day. And then we get annoyed when they get out of sync. And we get impatient for things to get “back to normal.”

But maybe that’s never what was normal to begin with.  

Maybe, I’m most in-sync when lunch with my toddler takes longer–longer to pretend our fingers are little people dancing on the table, longer to chat about Batman, longer to exchange goofy grins.

Maybe I’m most in-sync when the baby ends up needing to be walked to sleep for a bit and then snuggles down for his nap on my chest in the baby carrier.

Maybe I’m most in in-sync when I’m pouring imaginary tea with my 6 year-old.

The bridge to the world of education here is very short indeed.  It reminds me of a section that resonated most in Taryn Bondclegg’s latest post: her description of the internal struggle when it comes to letting go of our careful “plans:”

“Yet I have to admit, I had an internal struggle. The teachery teacher side of me kept saying “Hurry up! Move along! There is content to get to! You are behind your team! Report cards are coming!” While the inquiry-teacher side of me kept saying “Slow down. What’s the rush? Follow your students. Notice the learning that is happening everyday.”

That word “notice” particularly stands out to me. It seems to me that “hurry” and “notice” are almost always nemeses.

When we hurry to start the day, do we notice who seems to have had a really rough morning?

When we hurry through our lesson, do we notice the thoughtful questions that deviate from the plan (though they might take us somewhere even better)?

When we hurry our assessments, do we notice the growth and small victories as well?

And yes, we do have obligations and content and testing to answer to. But if we are continually rushing to keep up, both as teachers and as parents, we are much more likely to miss the good stuff. The stuff that puts us most in-sync. The stuff that makes us connect most as human beings.

Slow down. Notice. And don’t worry when things don’t go to plan. That’s usually where the best learning and connecting happens anyway. 

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto