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

On Behavior, Santa, & Things Getting Complicated Real Quick #TeacherMom

Despite keeping the whole Santa/behavior thing fairly low-profile in our home, we worried our daughter was still internalizing it from various sources (school, movies, etc) pretty intensely.

Our fears were confirmed one day a few weeks ago as she expressed concern about “not being good enough.” She asked us whether other kids getting more for Christmas meant they were “good-er” than her.

Just to be clear, people. She wasn’t just worried about getting nothing (or coal) if she “was bad.” She had observed relative hauls among peers, and drew the logical conclusion that kids who get less simply aren’t as good as kids who get more.

If you’ve watched Pixar’s Inside Out, you’ll understand when I say that in that moment, all systems were in freak-out mode for a moment, and I’m still not sure if Fear or Anger were more in control. If you haven’t, let’s just say that the primitive mama-bear protective instincts were fully awakened.

And it’s why this tweet from Adam McKim got an amen from me:

Now, when it comes to behavior, I am perfectly fine with consequences, loss of privilege, follow-through, time-out–the works.

But we take great care in our family discipline to ensure our kids understand their worth is unchanging. She may make a bad choice, but she is not a bad kid. And because she is a good kid, we know she can make better choices next time.

Nothing–not a perfectly-behaved class, and certainly not Santa–is worth jeopardizing our kids’ notions of self-worth.

That’s why I believe that as parents and teachers, we must always be on the lookout for when our actions send unintended messages. Like when our praise gets understandably concentrated on the kids who are naturally more comfortable with speaking up. Or when our rewards become more about control than encouragement.

All of this is much easier said than done, of course–after all, I would never have guessed that my daughter’s interpretations of Santa had gone so far as to touch on economic implications, and I’m grateful she brought it up! We are all so different and complex. But as we continue to work to prioritize our individual relationships with our students, we will be more likely to clarify misunderstandings and grow mutual respect.

featured image: Christian Weldinger

Inquiry: How Do People Get Their Food?

An inquiry provocation is meant to help us stretch our thinking beyond what we normally consider. It’s designed to plant the kind of seed that, as it grows, inspires us to continue reconsidering and rethinking the world around us. We learn to ask more thoughtful questions, make connections to existing understandings, and develop consideration and empathy for others.

Thus, this week’s provocation on how people get their food isn’t just about food. It’s about getting us to consider broader concepts (including, but not limited to, PYP units of inquiry such as How the World WorksHow We Organize Ourselves, and Who We Are). I would love to hear if/how you use these resources with your class!

#1 of 3: Atlas of Beauty image

Mihaela Noroc is a Romanian photographer who travels the world with the goal to capture beauty in all countries. Below is a recent photo of a woman doing her grocery shopping in Myanmar.

via Mihaela Noroc’s Atlas of Beauty Facebook page

#2 of 3: What I Eat, Around the World in 80 Diets

Photojournalist Peter Menzel documented what individuals around the world eat each day.  See here for several of his photos along with the fascinating stories of each person.

#3 of 3: Amazon Go Concept

Amazon has developed a smart store that allows shoppers to grab their groceries and go without standing in line for payment. According to Futurism, “The store is powered by sensors, deep learning artificial intelligence (AI), and computer vision, which allows it to detect which items a customer has selected and even when products are returned to shelves.”

Provocation Questions:

  • How do people eat differently?
  • Why do people eat differently?
  • What do people’s eating habits tell us about their lives?
  • How is the way people get their food changing over time? Why?
  • Why is it important for us to consider how people eat differently around the world?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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

Inquiry into Scale & Perspective

Being more spatially-challenged in general, I always had trouble as a child comprehending concepts like mirror images, rotations, and geometry nets.

Fortunately, as a grew older, I learned that these are all just facets of broader concepts of scale and perspective. I’ve also benefited by recognizing their applications beyond mathematics–from art to city planning to interpersonal relationships.

So this week consists of a provocation to help our young learners begin with the big picture of scale and perspective, hopefully encouraging them to draw their own connections and conclusions.

The first is a fascinating video that lays out the entire history of the earth on a football field.

The second is a photo series by artist Matthew Albanese. He creates stunningly realistic landscapes using forced perspective, using materials from nutmeg to steel wool to fake fog. Head over to his site to view the collection of images, along with the incredible behind-the-scenes images and information on his process. 

Provocation Questions:

  • How do people use scale and perspective to help us see “the big picture?”
  • How does technology allow us new possibilities to show scale and perspective?
  • How do scale and perspective change the way we see the world?
  • What is our responsibility to use perspective in our lives?
  • How are scale and perspective connected?
  • How does perspective help us understand other people?
  • How does scale help us understand the world?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

 

That Time I Failed At Inquiry: 5 Missing Elements

Years ago, toward the end of the school year, I felt like our class was in a rut. I wasn’t sure what we were missing–Autonomy? Inspiration? Creativity? All of the above?

Whatever it was, I decided to do something drastic. I had recently come across a story online of a teacher who encouraged her students to create videos, and it seemed like a great idea to me.

So the next day, I checked out the laptop carts and dived head-long. I told them they had to work in small groups. I told them they could create any commercial they wanted. I might have had slightly more structure than I can recall, but if there was, it wasn’t much. And I stepped back, awaiting the student-centered magic to come to life.

It was bedlam.

Shocked and dismayed at the chaos and the discord and the aimlessness, I cancelled the whole thing the next day.

Today, a small part of me still wants to leave this experience forever buried in the corner of my memory labeled, “I-can’t-believe-you-actually-tried-that.”

But the rest of me knows that our failures are rich with learning opportunities. It reminds me of a teacher’s remarks during a PD session on inquiry this fall in which she expressed a wish to hear more about inquiry attempts that have crashed and burned. So, having come a long way since then (I hope!), I think I’m ready to finally retrieve that memory from its dark recesses and shed light and learning on it instead.

Here are 5 major elements that I now realize I was missing:

Top 10 Read Alouds for Upper Elementary from 2016

2016 has been an excellent reading year for me. I’ve renewed my use of Goodreads, enjoyed sequels in favorite series, and discovered a new genre I deeply enjoy (more on that later). My old lists of read alouds for upper elementary grades featured a lot of favorites I had read long ago (first list, second list), but not a lot of recent reads.

So to keep my recommendations fresh, and to help me keep up my momentum of reading more books, I want to start making a habit of sharing my favorites reads at the end of each year, starting today (note, these are not necessarily books published this year, but rather ones that I read this year). Hopefully this list will be timely for teachers looking for a quality winter-break stack (and for my own children and students down the road)!

#10: Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier, by Michelle Cuevas

This book had me tickled by the fact that, without the title, readers wouldn’t even realize the narrator was not, in fact, a living breathing member of the family for the first several chapters. Rather, he seems more like just a kid with a lot of problems with getting ignored. This is a genre that I’ve designated as “other-worldly whimsical,” a personally-defined subset of modern fantasy of which I find myself constantly wanting more. A hilarious yet profound read about belonging and self-understanding.

#9The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, by David Almond

This book originally caught my eye because of Oliver Jeffers. I was delighted to discover that David Almond’s style very much parallel’s Jeffers’. Follow Stanley Potts as he discovers his destiny far from his fish-canning home. You and your students will enjoy themes of courage, confidence, wonder, rules, and conformity. Also one I’d classify “other-worldly whimsical.”

#8: The Magician’s Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician’s Elephant felt like a lovely poem or perhaps a dream. “We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?” Peter Augustus Duchene changes his world by asking the question, “Does my sister live?” Readers then follow him through an enchanting and mysterious tale of truth and love.

#7: The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Like the Pevensies of Narvia, Ada and her little brother are sent to the country away from war-torn London during WWII. There, they, too, discover a new world with their caretaker–one full of love, acceptance, and hope. This historical fiction will move and inspire your class.

#6: The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

This outdoor adventure-loving girl fell in love with this book the moment I read the words, “If you stand still in nature long enough, something will fall on you.” It’s just so–real. Peter Brown helps us ponder what might actually happen if an advanced A.I. robot found herself on an uninhabited island. How might she adapt to her surroundings? Would she be able to learn the language of animals? And would she–a man-made creation–be able to find her place in the natural world?

#5: The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or Three Magical Children & Their Holy Dogby Adam Gidwitz

From the fascinating approach to narration, to the way we are invited to truly access life in medieval times, this is a fresh and truly unique story. I especially loved the idea of “illumination” as opposed to illustration, keeping in line with a common medieval practice. Learn of three children whose powers have the entire kingdom–from the king of France down–in awe, fear, and/or admiration.

#4: The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner 

See my review here.

#3: Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

This is a tale of bonds that even miles and a war-torn country cannot break. Follow a story that shifts in perspective between Pax the fox and his boy, Peter.

#2: Lockwood & Company, The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

If you are looking for a series that will have your students begging for more, this is it (I actually read book 4 in the series this year, The Creeping Shadow, and am dying to find out when book 5 comes out!). Lucy and her companions, Lockwood and George, are teenage agents working to rid London of the Problem (a development in which ghosts return, wreaking panic and death among the living). Only children can see the Visitors, but Lockwood’s is the only company that consists only of children. It is a bit creepy, so you might want to run it by your students before choosing it as a read aloud–but if they aren’t too nervous, it will have them on the edge of their seats!

#1: Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage

I just finished reading the third and final book in this series (The Odds of Getting Even), and I loved every moment of it! Mo is probably the wittiest and sassiest 6th grader you’ll meet, and her best friend Dale is an equally loveable character. Follow the duo as they establish the Desperados Detective Agency and solve a murder. Packed with hilarious figurative language, mystery, and small town charm, Three Times Lucky is simply a must-read!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto