A Teacher Flowchart on Innovative Learning

As I continue to pursue my one-word goal of synthesis, I’ve decided to give another graphic a shot! I love the process of visually uniting the learning concepts on my mind, as well as the opportunity to sift through recent ideas from my PLN that have inspired me most. I would love your feedback on this project! (Below is the jpeg version. See the clickable version here!)

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

When We Love Spreadsheets Too Much: Matching the Tech to the Need

Three years ago, I was hit with bed rest right before the start of our school’s IB PYP Exhibition (a student-led unit in which students exhibit their abilities to direct their own learning on a topic of their choice).

Though disappointed to miss out, I was pleased to discover that I could still mentor groups via Skype, which I’ve continued to do each year since.

However, we still had some hurdles to overcome with our unique mentor “meeting” setup. How to organize our ideas? How to keep track of when we’d meet next? How to exchange links to helpful resources?

I turned, as always, to Google apps, whipping up the collaborative little beauty below to send to the students via the teacher. With more than a little extra time on my hands (remember the whole bed-rest thing?), I found fancy fonts, froze the top rows, and everything.

It was a spreadsheet to be proud of, and I was excited to see it in action!

Only… it didn’t quite perform to my expectations.

For one thing, the kids didn’t have access to 1:1 tech, so they usually only saw the document through their teacher.

For another, they were frankly too busy to be bothered with updating yet another form! Exhibition is one fast-moving, action-packed unit!

Ultimately, the kids didn’t get a lot of the resources they needed in a timely manner, and our communications often felt encumbered.

So, as this year’s exhibition kicks off, we’re keeping it as functional as possible. As we Skype (something I continue as the school is too far from where I live), I type notes in a basic Google Doc just to keep track of the different groups’ ideas. Afterward, I’m emailing the teacher easy-to-print feedback or even pasted-out articles to get resources in those kids’ hands asap!

In the end, it’s possible that this problem might be unique to my quirky infatuation with creating neat and color-coded spreadsheets. However, the general principle applies universally. When we keep our sights on what’s best for the kids, we are less likely to get caught up in bells, whistles, and all-around helpful-in-theory-but-not-in-practice methods and resources. Here’s to a better year of exhibition mentoring!

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Inquiry into Collaboration

Whether you are beginning the PYP Exhibition or otherwise would like to recharge your students’ teamwork skills, this week’s provocation centers on collaboration.

One word of caution however: spend more time “coaching from the side” than you do lecturing from the start. Chances are, they’ve heard it all before, and they need hands-on, timely feedback more than anything! (I’ve definitely gotten this all backward in the past, giving far too much time and energy to the initial instruction and then expecting them to put it into practice effectively).

Resource #1: “They All Saw A Cat” by Brendan Wenzel

via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon

Both the advantage and disadvantage of collaboration lies in the fact that we all have different perspectives. Enter “They All Saw A Cat” to get kids thinking about what this means.

Resource #2: 21 Balançoires (21 Swings) by Daily tous les jours

Every time I watch this, I keep forgetting that the background music was not, in fact, a professional soundtrack, but was created by these people simply cooperating with one another on the swings. Sure to evoke serious thought from your students!

Provocation Questions:

  • Why does perspective matter when it comes to collaboration?
  • What makes collaboration work?
  • How has the need for collaboration changed over history?

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The Price of Putting What’s Best for Teachers over What’s Best for Students

Heart thumping. Throat catching. I want to sink into the floor. I want to dissolve. One by one, students call out their math quiz scores as my teacher records them in her gradebook. My last name is toward the beginning of the alphabet; my abysmal score will stand out in burning contrast to all the other acceptable scores that come after me.

Mine is never acceptable.

I feel the shame of my teacher’s disapproval.

I feel the humiliation of my classmates’ incredulity.

I feel the weight of the growing belief that I. don’t. belong. 

Day after day, I spent that entire year of elementary school in a sickened panic. I doubt my teacher possessed malicious intent toward me. Perhaps she even hoped that this strategy would help free up her time to better reach her students in other ways.

But put into practice, it served her convenience as a teacher more than my needs as a student.

And as a result, I spent every day, and many years thereafter, believing that she simply despised me. So all-encompassing was that fear and shame, I honestly doubt I was able to absorb much in the way of learning that year.

Now, at first glance, this may seem an extreme example. But here’s the thing: we never know how our kids are internalizing their surroundings; they might be unable as of yet to articulate their feelings even for themselves. With all their personal experiences and circumstances, students often respond differently to identical strategies (for me personally, it didn’t help that that year was also the single most tumultuous period of my childhood).

It is crucial, therefore, that we scrutinize every one of our practices with this question: Is this best for my students? None of us are perfect, and we certainly will make mistakes where this question is concerned, but as long as we keep reflecting, apologizing, and trying again, we can be assured that we are doing all in our power to provide a safe and positive learning environment for our students.

When the answer to that question is anything but a resounding yes, we never know what the price may be.

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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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Recovering from Perfectionism for Our Students, for Ourselves

Can you picture the first time you tried to write bubble letters? I don’t know about you, but for me, it did NOT go well. The letters bunched at the end of the page. Some parts of each letter were too fat. Others were too skinny. I knew my attempt looked nothing like my older sisters’ bubble letters, and even less like the cool typography I saw on posters.

I didn’t want anyone to see the ridiculous letters I had drawn. I wanted to hurry and throw the paper away and quickly revert to normal writing — quick! — before anyone could see that I had tried to deviate.

And that is pretty much how I felt about failure throughout my childhood.

AJ Juliani recently wrote about the difference between fail-ing and fail-ure, emphasizing the fact that when we focus on failing, we focus on the process and on how we pick ourselves back up. On the other hand, failure doesn’t have anything to do with getting back up, or with that resilience and determination.

And this is key for that wily perfectionism.

As Brene Brown wrote in The Gifts of Imperfection,

“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

For our students, who are particularly susceptible to making efforts based on peers’ perceptions, we owe it to them to model what shaking off perfectionism looks like. To show the fails and, more importantly, the subsequent attempts.

These days, I try to be honest about what my “getting back up” looks like on a regular basis (When DIYpd Goes Terribly Wrong…Or Does It; That Time I Failed At Inquiry; What Driving Stick Shift Taught Me About Teaching). Where our students are concerned, I think that’s the least we can do if we expect them to take risks and to be courageous as they stretch, fail, and grow each day. And let’s be honest — it’s the least we can do for ourselves.

Here are a couple of videos (by New Age CreatorsDiana Laufenberg) that have inspired me in my continued journey to let go of perfectionism, and to truly learn from failure. May they do they same for you!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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