My senior year of high school, I decided to take AP Calculus. I was taking some other advanced classes as well, and it wasn’t long before my math grade started to lag. Anxious about upcoming college applications and the desire for nothing to mar my GPA, I approached my Calc teacher, Bob Burns, to tell him I should probably drop his class. It was a small school, and between the fact that he had taught several of my previous classes, and that he had coached for a couple of my teams, we had a established a solid relationship.
Given that background, I expected that he’d respond to my concerns with reassurance, telling me I shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my grade and supporting my decision to drop his class.
I was, um, wrong.
Instead, Mr. Burns declared that if I chose to drop his class that day, I would be setting myself up to drop every other difficult and important thing that arose in my life.
Needless to say, I stayed. That was the single most precious skill I gained from his course that year: learning to stay even when the stakes are high.
As a tribute to Mr. Burns, I’d like to list other pivotal moments since then when I stayed where I might otherwise have very easily left had it not been for his bold words that day.
When I was so homesick my first month of college that I thought there was no way I could live so far from home, I stayed. And earned a teaching degree from a wonderful school.
When I was sure there was no way I could continue waking up at 4 am for a custodial shift, I stayed. And was able to navigate the world of college financing.
When I felt I simply could not handle my commute and daily goodbyes to my baby girl as I left to teach, I stayed (until bedrest and a couple more babies prompted my current sabbatical). And gained irreplaceable experiences, perspectives, and professional development that would inform all facets of my life, including my current blogging and child-rearing.
When I felt I would surely run out of ideas and should give up blogging, I stayed. And have discovered a remarkable PLN that has continued to push my thinking as a teacher.
Mr. Burns may not have caused all these events to unfold exactly as they have. But I know that without his bold lesson in persistence, I would have been much less likely to stick around for the hardest, but ultimately, most rewarding aspects of my life. And that is certainly thanks to a teacher.
As I scanned the library cart of shiny new books, I noticed it: a brand new copy of “Leo the Late Bloomer” by Robert Kraus. With a wave of childhood nostalgia, I quickly added it to our bag, relishing the idea of sharing it with my kids for the first time.
My daughter picked it out for us to read over breakfast. But when I finished, that warm sentimental feeling I expected was no where to be found.
For those for whom it’s been a while since reading about Leo, here’s the gist of the story. Leo can’t read, write, draw, or eat neatly. His dad worries there’s something wrong with him and watches him closely for a while until mom convinces him to be patient. Then, when dad stops watching and some time passes, Leo blooms — suddenly reading, writing, drawing, and eating neatly. And that’s when Leo finally smiles, too (he’d had a morose frown throughout the rest of the story).
My daughter and I talked it over for a bit.
“…It’s like the author is saying that Leo couldn’t be happy until he could do everything the other kids could do.”
“…It seems like you go from not doing anything to suddenly being able to do everything.”
“…It makes it sound like the only important things are reading, writing, drawing, and eating neatly.”
Then we started talking about other things kids can do that are really important, too. After throwing out a few ideas, we decided to write it down in a list. Here’s what we came up with:
I like her list. To me, these aren’t “consolation prizes” for not being able to read, write, draw, or eat neatly yet. It’s just a wider lens for recognizing what it means to grow up and finding ways to be proud of that growth.
I have a few more conclusions of my own to add:
It’s not that parents should just stop hovering in order to give kids space to grow; it’s that they should help create a joyous environment for learning and growth and then let kids take it from there.
It’s not where you are on a trajectory of growth; it’s thatyou’re on a trajectory of growth — and there are milestones worth celebrating all along that trajectory.
In college, I took a course called “The History of Creativity and Innovation.” It was a fascinating review of the entire history of mankind from the perspective of creativity, innovation, and curiosity. So it’s an interesting paradox that though curiosity has ever been pivotal in the advancement of our species, we still tend to still prioritize status-quo-preservation. This week’s provocation is meant to encourage that very curiosity that has brought us the wheel, the compass, the printing press, and the Internet.
Resource #1: Tweet from Astronaut Randy Bresnik:
A fidget spinner in space! How long does it spin? I’m not sure, but it’s a great way to experiment with Newton’s laws of motion! pic.twitter.com/5xIJDs2544
At long last, my youngest has started walking. Really, he seems to have started more in spite of his parents’ encouragement rather than because of it. But now that he’s at it, he simply radiates delight in this new ability.
There’s nothing quite like a newly-walking baby to get you pondering the concept of “CAN.” So in his honor, and for teachers and students everywhere whose sense of CAN might have become somewhat diminished, I’d like to share this provocation.
Resource #1: Casey Neistat Samsung Commercial: The Rest of Us
Resource #2: Ode to CAN
Resource #3: This Could Fail by John Spencer
What are the different perspectives people hold when it comes to trying new things?
Why does discouragement happen?
What perspectives help people try again even when they fail?
What is our responsibility to tell ourselves and others “you can?”
You get the journey and you get the stress. At the end, you’re a different person. But both elements are part of the deal.
There are plenty of journeys that are stress-free. They take you where you expect, with little in the way of surprise or disappointment.”
I sit here at my computer and nod and think, “Preach the growth-mindset goodness!” But when it’s your child tearing up because that math problem doesn’t make sense (yet), how in the world do we help them appreciate that the stress of a confusing math problem can actually be positive because it means she’s working toward growth as a mathematician? That that discomfort in learning is actually a good sign?
I’m learning so much about stress through Dr. Stuart Shanker’s book, Self-Reg. Something that I’m learning to stop doing is responding with exasperation in such moments. Just because we’ve extolled the virtues of a growth-mindset and positive stress in the past does not mean that the distressed child before us is currently able to recall such principles at that moment.
I’ve also learned that simply telling the child to take a few deep breaths may not be at all productive either. What’s most important is teaching them to regulate their own emotions. As Shanker states:
“[when] the child is so overwrought or angry that nothing that you say or do seems to help…this happens not because a child’s “braking mechanism” is defective and certainly not because she isn’t “trying hard enough” but because she is so aroused that she can’t register what she or we are saying or doing.”
So in that moment, instead of trying to remind the child of the joys of the growth and the learning, we need to help her “focus on the three R’s of emotional regulation: Recognize. Reduce. Restore. Recognize the signs of escalating stress. Reduce the stress. Restore energy.”
I know I can sometimes take for granted my grown-up ability to regulate stress. This means I need to do a better job of viewing practices and principles through the lens of developmental context.
The point is, yes, teach growth mindset and model the virtues of discomfort for progress. But also teach kids to recognize when their stress levels have become excessive, and to discover personal coping mechanisms to help restore them to healthy energy levels.
Only then will our young learners be able to choose and embrace journeys of stress and change, rather than only choosing the risk-free routes.
“How We Express Ourselves” was always a tricky PYP unit theme for me. I struggled finding ways to help our students weave it in a transdisciplinary manner, and it almost always just came back to the obvious art.
But similar to how my view of the PYP key concepts has broadened over time, so too is my view of this theme. I have come to better understand that expressing ourselves is a basic human need that is woven into all we do. I’ve also found that authentic self-expression, which engenders passion and joy, is more readily found when we embrace imperfection, cultivate a growth mindset, and are given opportunities to own our learning.
With that in mind, here are a few resources that might help you invite your students into a How We Express Ourselves Inquiry. Don’t forget about the provocation questions at the end (and add a few of your own if you’re so inclined)!
“The Big Orange Splot” by Daniel Pinkwater has been a lifetime favorite of mine. Read with your students about what happens when a bird drops a bucket of paint on Mr. Plumbean’s house that used to be just like every other house on his neat street.
I love the mysterious whimsy of Annabelle’s box of yarn that never runs out, and how she uses it to transforms her surroundings.
What does it mean to express ourselves?
Why do we feel the need to express ourselves?
How is general expression different from self-expression?
How can one person’s self-expression help someone else see the world differently?
How does the way we choose to express ourselves impact our lives? How does it impact the lives of others around us?
What is the connection between self-expression and individuality?
What is the connection between self-expression and perspective?
What does the growth mindset have to do with self-expression?
How can self-expression sometimes be unexpected?
Why is perfectionism the enemy of self-expression?
Edutopia recently shared Sal Khan’s story and vision in establishing Khan Academy. What stands out most to me was his goal for Khan Academy to help “Bring [us] closer to this model of true personalization where every student is on their own learning path and feels fully engaged.”
Khan Academy can indeed be such a tool for this personalization goal. But it certainly cannot and does not stand alone in such a lofty pursuit. Fortunately for us all, teachers are globally and daily sharing their aha moments and best practices. Here are additional ideas, largely thanks to my PLN’s incredible willingness to share their learning journeys, for helping students get on “their own learning path.”
1. Allow them to plan their day. As teachers Taryn Bond-Clegg and Aviva Dunsiger have illustrated, this can be done with older and younger students:
2. Do whatever it takes to find out how they really feel. I believe it’s mainly fear that holds us back from uncovering student voice — because what if they say they hate our subjects? What if it invites conflict? What if it takes too much time?
Indeed, when I read posts from Pernille Ripp like her recent “When Reading is Trash or Magic” that shares how she seeks for students’ honest feedback, I wonder how on earth I would respond to some of their bold answers. However, the truth that she and others who do the same have taught me is this:
Only when we uncover students’ true feelings can we help them develop shifts in mindset.
Only when they recognize that they can express what they truly feel — without fear of teacher disapproval or backlash — will they be willing to let their guard down enough to give things a shot.
And only when they see that we are willing to work with them wherever they are will they be able to embark on their own learning path.
3. Help them break down required learning outcomes to tackle them on their terms. Again, Taryn Bond-Clegg shares a fabulous example of this in her post above. Rather than just presenting students with a list of objectives, she helps them break things down into a gradual increase of independence. I have yet to find a better way to negotiate the existence of required learning outcomes with student ownership over their learning.
4. Explicitly teach AND model the growth mindset. And it’s not enough to settle on simple platitudes of, “you can do anything if you just try.” It takes being authentic and vulnerable with them. As Jo Boaler recently shared in season 3 episode 1 of #IMOOC (32:10):
“One of the problems kids have is they look at their math teacher and they think, ‘Oh, that’s what being a math person is; you know everything, you never make mistakes, you’re totally sure of everything.’ That’s a terrible image to give kids. So one of the reasons teachers don’t try some of those more open creative tasks is because they don’t know what will happen. They don’t know what kids are going to do.”
Katie Martin adds, “[We must] have conversations with kids about making mistakes — and not just a fake make-mistake — but when you’re actually taking a risk, where you have the possibility of something not working out, [that’s] really powerful.”
5. Explicitly teach AND model metacognition. Visible thinking routines are especially useful on this front because it brings that thinking to the surface. I loved having the opportunity to work with teachers at my old school last year during which we applied visible thinking routinesto bring their thoughts on inquiry to the whiteboard for group dissection. Students must learn their processes to bring their thinking to the surface in order to more fully take the reins over their learning.
6. Provide choice in how they organize their thinking. Melanie Meehan recently shared an excellent example of how we sometimes get caught in the pitfall of believing all the students need to use the same graphic organizer to gather their thoughts. Here’s her example of several writing graphic organizers:
7. Provide choice in how they express/assess their thinking. Seesaw, notebooks, vlogs, portfolios, word clouds, Storybird, Prezi, sketchnotes… the list goes on and on. The point is that we need to get out of the mindset that all the students need to have the same presentation in order for it to be valid.
8. Create a rich and diverse culture of reading. I loved watching Colby Sharp’s vlog touring his classroom library — quite aside from the sheer volume, I was impressed at his clear efforts to reach all his students’ reading needs. Obviously, this culture goes beyond just the presence of books — my short list for additional inspiration includes Nerdy Book Club, Pernille Ripp’s blog, and LibraryGirl.
9. Give them autonomy over self-regulatory basics. This includes bathroom use and snacks. I wrote some time ago about why and how we need to abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?” and it’s just as relevant as ever now. I also appreciated Aviva Dunsiger’s classroom tour when she showed where and why she has a designated spot for her kindergartners to “eat when they feel hungry.” After all, how can we expect them to be on their own learning path if they are distracted by waiting to take care of their personal basic needs?
10. Prioritize the pursuit ofmeaning. Time and time again, through my own practice and through the many wonderful teachers in my PLN, meaning is the way we get out of “the game of school.” If it doesn’t personally matter to them, nothing we do will matter in the longterm. See my story of “Digging Deeper in a Poetry Unit” on Edutopia for a personal example.
I look forward to continuing to learn and discover ways we can truly help our students own and personalize their learning. Thank you to all the teachers out there who have and continue to share their learning journeys!