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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Inquiry Into Attitudes: Independence

This is part of a series of inquiry-based provocations for essential elements of the PYP and the Learner Profile. For more, click here.

Independence is such an important element of a child’s life. But it can also be filled with much confusion as there is so much beyond their control. Why not open it up as an inquiry, allowing them to define, discuss, and better understand it? This provocation is suited for just that purpose.

Resource #1: La Luna, by Pixar

Resource #2: Memo, by Gobelins

Resource #3: Chopsticks by Amy Krouse Rosenthal 

Provocation Questions:

  • What does it mean to be independent?
  • How does independence change over a person’s life? Why?
  • What are the different perspectives on independence? How can this sometimes cause conflict?

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When School Is a To-Do List…

…do kids see anything but the list?

…do they put themselves into the learning?

“Seeing a student completely zone out in front of a screen and letting the computer lead the learning is not where I hope education is moving…Let’s just remember that in “personalization” is the word “person.”” ~George Couros

…are they bringing their own energy and passion into those tasks?

…how is their ability for a self-driven life impacted? Are they more or less equipped?

“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.”” ~William Stixrud

…do they get the chance to discover the power of their own voices?

…is there any room left for curiosity, when so much energy is spent on compliance?

“How do you view the learners in your class? Do you believe children are inherently intelligent, curious and creative? Do you recognise their rights and their capabilities? Do you trust them?” ~Edna Sackson

…is there time for reflection and metacognition?

…do students feel they are making personal discoveries worth discussing?

“I want the students to sit on their own shoulders – watch themselves, notice their responses and listen to their self-talk.  I want them to slow down, press the pause button and review their actions. I want them to ask: “what am I noticing about myself in this?”  “What did I just do/say?” “What is this telling me about myself?” “What could I do differently?” I want them to bring an inquiry stance to learning about themselves as people  and I want them to carry that disposition into the rest of their lives.” ~Kath Murdoch

What small changes can we make to better help students learn to own and drive their learning?

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Lessons from Homemade Valentines #TeacherMom

I have zero problem with shelling out $4 for a couple boxes of Valentines for my daughter’s classmates. But when she insisted on making her own for all the kids in her class back in Kindergarten, it absolutely mirrored this Hedge Humor comic:

via Hedge Humor “Valentine Issues”

By the time we get to that last panel here, we’re all ready raise the white flag, drop everything, and run to the store for that silly box of dog and cat valentines with sayings like, “You’re purr-fect.”

But whether it was because she was emulating her hero, Fancy Nancy, in this Valentine’s book someone gave to her, or whether her sheer stubborn will wouldn’t concede failure, she insisted on continuing. Not just then, but in the years since.

And I guess, now that she’s off and away with batch 3 of her annual homemade Valentine’s, I would say I’m actually glad she continued. First and foremost, because it has brought her joy — but also, because it has taught me some important lessons:

1) Stamina is not fun to cultivate — which is why it’s crucial to leverage via kids’ interest. Stamina in writing, stamina in reading, stamina in simply seeing a project through to its completion — we know these are all valuable skills for students and adults alike. But without student-led interest, these skills can be as painful to work on as pulling teeth. At times, we may need to work on stamina as a stand-alone goal (such as training students to be able to read for longer and longer periods of time).

However, we will make much greater progress in stamina when students’ interest is leading the way; not because they won’t experience moments of wanting to quit, but because we can help them use their own end goals to pave their way forward.

2) Student-led endeavors always yield unexpected opportunities for growth. I’ve been surprised to discover that my daughter spends the days before V-day polling her classmates to ascertain their valentine preferences. She has conversations with her teachers about class lists. And of course, she’s always finding new strategies to hone her craft and rein in the glitter. But my favorite discovery here is the fact that there is growth and learning that I don’t even know about — all because she is in the thralls of intrinsic enthusiasm.

3) Zone of proximal development matters even for Valentine-making. Sure, that first year, my daughter pictured herself whipping up valentines as masterfully as Nancy (wearing a chic ensemble to boot). But the zone of proximal development is a place of, well, development. Scaffolding, patience, and time are all needed as we work together with students toward greater and greater independence.

We can also help shape the environment to keep efforts centered in the ZPD, rather than straying into the zone of frustration. For valentine-making, this might include limiting materials or providing pre-cut hearts.

 

In short, though I have no idea where my daughter got this love of arts and crafts, supporting her homemade valentine efforts has reinforced to me the way learning works. I suppose these are lessons I will continue to find most readily when I let my kids lead the way for their learning at home.

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Autonomy & Cell Phones In Class

My scope of experience with kids and phones doesn’t extend past 5th graders. There’s only one real incident I can even recall where a student kept visiting her backpack to check out her phone, which was resolved without much fuss.

But the question of whether teachers should make sweeping bans of devices from their classrooms is highly relevant to teachers everywhere because it speaks to our efforts toward fostering greater student ownership and autonomy over their learning.  At the same time, we do know that app-makers design apps to be as enticing as possible, to which kids are even more likely to fall prey to distraction and time-wasting.

In fact, an educator in this KQED MindShift article compared it to candy: “Don’t give kids unlimited access to “Halloween candy and Christmas cookies while they are still learning to eat a balanced diet.””

For whatever reason, this reminded me of a couple of plates that my dietitian mother-in-law gave to my kids:

I’ve liked these just because it’s easier to pour applesauce and yogurt into the portions. But to my surprise, they’ve also caused my kids started initiating conversations about food groups, portions, and intake balance. We also noticed together the absence of candy and treats as a food group, and have discussed the importance of moderation there, too.

The MindShift article also quoted educators who emphasize the importance of making cell phone use and distraction a direct conversation. Surely, just as there is value in letting kids in on the big picture of dietary balance, there is value in letting kids in on the big picture of balanced cell phone use.

Of course, that does not equate to an automatic green-light on all devices at all times. In fact, having an open conversation is a great way to invite student input on troubleshooting. Questions/discussion points you might ask might include:

  • How can devices enhance our learning?
  • How might devices enhance feedback within our classroom? With learners across the globe?
  • How might devices cause a distraction for ourselves? How might they distract our peers?
  • What does balanced device use look like?
  • What are the possible dangers of unbalanced device use?
  • What strategies or guidelines might minimize distraction while maximizing learning in our classroom?

However we choose to manage the issue, inviting our students to take a more proactive role can help not only mitigate the management issues but empower our students for more longterm ownership over their own device use.

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What Child Autonomy Is Not #TeacherMom

When kids feel constantly acted upon, with little understanding of what’s coming next in their lives, we can expect problematic behavior. This is what autonomy is all about. It’s why I have so deeply appreciated learning about the philosophy of Self-Reg. It’s why I write and tweet so frequently about #StudentVoice and #StudentChoice. And its why I’m always searching for ways I can better help my kids take the wheel in directing their lives.

Most recently, I decided to make little labeled picture magnets to help my 3 year-old organize and understand the flow of his days. It’s still unfolding, but I’m working on labeling or grouping the pictures so he can see which are activities he can choose from (pic below), which are activities that I will let him know are happening that day (library, local recreation center), and which are daily routines (meals, storytime, etc).

In addition building his functional concept of time (including the ability to tell what comes “after” or “before),” it’s already building his comprehension of his personal autonomy over how he can spend his time. He can more clearly see the choices within his reach, and he is learning to understand where those choices fall among the non-negotiable pursuits of each day.

This exercise in building autonomy is precious. It is laying a foundation for better self-awareness and self-determination.

However, almost similar to the way that discussing power is sometimes frowned upon, the concept of honoring and building kids’ autonomy is often misunderstood. So I’ve been thinking lately about what it is not. Autonomy is not

letting kids do whatever they want. As described in the above daily picture magnets, there are activities that are non-negotiable (meals, brushing teeth, etc). But even within those non-negotiables, we spend considerable time discussing the why behind them. And we also allow kids to feel the consequences of their choices without rescuing them every time to better help them understand their importance.

never forcing them. Sometimes, kids do need a nudge for their own safety and development. However, we prioritize intrinsic motivation and “letting them in on the secret” of their development. This helps them to self-regulate their needs so they are not reliant on others for treats, stickers, praise, or compulsion in order to make the very choices that will most benefit their lives.

the absence of hard concepts that kids might avoid, such as work ethic. Instead, we help kids cultivate a broader view of who they are and who they want to become, allowing that strong sense of identity to drive themselves through hard things.

What obstacles have you encountered in advocating for kids’ autonomy? What benefits have you seen in honoring their autonomy?

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Agency Is Not Just For School #TeacherMom

After sharing my post on employing read alongs to keep my kids from movie-zombie-land for the entirety of Christmas break, a friend in my PLN reminded me,

I immediately knew she was right; while the read-alongs are enjoyed by all, my initial attitude centered more on my own needs than on my kids’. Of course, self-care is essential as parents, but when we consistently turn first to “keeping them busy,” we may miss opportunities to help them develop greater awareness, ownership, and responsibility over their own time–both in and out of the classroom.

All that said, as I started to consider how to bring this kind of autonomous personal planning to life for my 7, 3, and 1 year-old children, doubts sprung up in abundance:

What if they choose to watch movies all. day. long?

We’re still dealing with quite a lot of underdeveloped temporal understanding here–how can I entrust them to planning a couple of weeks worth of time?

What about good healthy stretches of unplanned time/boredom

What if my 7 year old plans a beautiful day and then sickness or other unforeseen events cause it to fall flat?

Where am I going to find the time to help her plan her entire holiday time?

But as I continued to consider my desire to apply my learning in all areas of my life (synthesize over compartmentalize), I realized that desire outweighed my fears.

Interestingly enough, at that very moment of resolution, and without any prompting from me, my daughter told me that she was off to write a list of fun things she might do. I took it as a sign–I grabbed some paper to create a calendar as she worked on her list of activities (which, I should add, included our read-alongs). 🙂

As we worked, an idea occurred to me to address the issue of temporal understanding: what if I measured to scale each day based on the number of hours she is awake? I measured the height of a day-square and then divided that by 12, as my daughter is usually awake for 12 hours each day. Then I made a little time ruler for her, with each line representing one hour:

When I explained it to my daughter, it was a huge light-bulb moment; she was so excited to have a way to make her concept of time more tangible.

We filled in some scheduled events we already had planned, and then I let her go with the rest!

As with most authentic pursuits in student agency, its scope ended up far beyond the original project, including mathematics, writing, speaking/listening skills, and self-management. My fears turned out to be either unfounded or minimal; there were no fights about watching movies all day long, we actually got to build temporal awareness, and there wasn’t any fussing when things didn’t work out.

Moreover, whenever holiday boredom hit, I was able to ask my daughter what she had planned for herself that day, which was always a positive exchange.

Once again, I’m so grateful for my amazing PLN for pushing my thinking and helping me stay accountable! Thanks, Olwen!

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