Lessons from filming our bike ride to the library #TeacherMom

I recently decided to film our weekly bike ride to the library. My 8 year-old was out of school for the holiday, so she is featured in the video as my boys were behind me in our trailer. Conscious of the need for others to gain insight on what it’s like to take another form of transportation, I shared this with my local community.

The overall response was positive and encouraging. But perhaps because my daughter was the only one of the four of us visible in the video, I was surprised to find that much of the conversation rested on her. I know now there were a lot of raised eyebrows at the sight of “this young girl biking in town.”

As usual, my reflections have brought me here. I’ve been thinking about some of the lessons through this experience, especially concerning how we view what kids are capable of.

#1: Sometimes, shielding kids from one risk leads to other dangers

When one person expressed fear at the sight of what they viewed to be such a risk, I responded by explaining our biking experience and how I know my daughter’s familiarity with the rules and her capacity to follow them.

I went on to explain that riding our bikes is a way to integrate physical activity into our day, which helps address serious risks associated with inactivity like heart disease and depression (noting also that the rising generation is the first projected to have a shorter lifespan than the previous generation for this reason). Of course, riding in traffic is scarier and we do avoid it when possible (and we work to advocate for better infrastructure that makes biking more comfortable for families).

We need to be careful not to shield kids so thoroughly from one risk that we open them up to others that are just as, if not more, threatening.

#2: One person’s “brave” is another person’s normal 

back when she was young enough for the seat! Baby brother snugly tucked in the baby carrier.

A very common response was, “Wow, you guys are so brave!” While I am very proud of my daughter for riding, I know that this is less about courage and more about capacity and experience. She has been riding with me since she she was just a year old; this is our normal. Which is the point. We want to normalize an active lifestyle so she can carry habits into her future that will allow her to have a high quality life.

Focusing on how brave something looks can detract from how doable it really is. That’s not to say it doesn’t require courage to start, but we can be emboldened in knowing we are not alone!

#3: We shouldn’t focus so much on what needs improvement that it intimidates people from joining in 

Even when I was editing the video and adding music, I was mindful to try achieve a delicate balance between conveying what we love about our active lifestyle and ways we can make it safer. I didn’t want it to seem so upbeat that it made people think there aren’t any issues to address, but I didn’t want to be so serious that it scares people away.

To me, all this comes back to the classroom in so many ways. I feel like Sam Sherratt captured it nicely in his recent tweet on learning from Reggio Emilia teachers:

When they are given the support they need, kids truly are capable of so much! We can encourage them to be knowledgeable risk-takers. We can help normalize positive habits. We can acknowledge and work on issues without allowing them to keep us away. All of this requires a lot of work, imagination, and letting go, but ultimately, it is our children and students who benefit from being empowered to take care of themselves and live life to the fullest.

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Student Agency: 5 Steps for Beginners

As student agency gains greater momentum (it’s now a core portion of the International Baccalaureate PYP program), more and more teachers are joining the discussion. Many start on the fringes, wondering…

would achievement go up if we helped students know, understand, and own the learning objectives? 

would we have fewer classroom management problems if we started to give students more choices about their learning? 

These are fabulous springboard questions, but they are just the beginning. True student agency is not actually about getting students to do what we want; it’s about helping them learn to identify what they want for themselves, to expand their view beyond this current task to a sense of self-driven purpose that will last much longer.

It’s a shift from teachers as the experts and controllers of learning in the room, to teachers as consultants and facilitators of student learning, helping students to make connections with peers, outside experts, and the community.

It’s a shift from students as passive recipients, waiting for the knowledge someone else has planned for them that day, to students as active agents, anticipating and even planning what should come next alongside their teachers.

These are massive shifts that take a great deal of time and patience with ourselves. So what are beginning steps we might take?

1. Help parents understand what we mean by agency and ownership over learning. At first, there may be confusion and reservations. But parents might be surprised to find out just much they might already be applying agency at home. Help them recognize that it might look like…

…fostering independence (Let Grow is a great resource illustrating ways many parents are working toward healthy, independent childhoods).

letting kids in on the secret of their own development.

building resilience skills.

…building time-management skills, including discussing balance.

…listening to kids’ voices even when we feel frustrated. (great example from Aviva Dunsinger, an early childhood teacher).

2. Work to cultivate self-regulation and other social-emotional practices. This goes beyond the occasional lesson discussing metacognition. It’s work that begins with ourselves, then carrying over to authentic modeling and discussions with our students. This might come through teaching students to identify their own feelings and process stress. Or it might happen through teaching them to take ownership over resources at their disposal.  All of this is important for agency because it gives them strategies for self-direction.

3. Get to the root of defiant behavior, and find new strategies to address it.   The “Life After Clip Charts” series gives excellent strategies that can replace those clip charts and stickers. They aren’t as neat or pretty, but they are important because if our students are constantly receiving the message that they need rewards from grown-ups in order to make good choices, they are less likely to believe that they can be trusted with their own learning life.

4. Invite student voice. Let students in on the secret of all that curricula and classroom set-up, etc. Bring all the “secret teacher business” stuff into view of the kids and ask them, how can we make it better? Invite them to teach workshops from time to time (great getting-started post here from Mindy Slaughter).

5. Work on “getting the mix right” between guidance and student-directed inquiry. Kath Murdoch (an inquiry-based teacher you should follow right way if you don’t already as part of this list) recently wrote on getting this mix right. There’s sometimes a strange notion that promoting agency means we teachers will be kicking our feet up on the desk. But the truth is, a lot of work goes into providing timely guidance. As Kath writes,

“Far from being an arms-length facilitator ‘on the side’, the inquiry teacher is continually weighing up if, when and how to ‘step in’. They actively work beside the learner observing, listening, questioning, prompting, suggesting, explaining, demonstrating, refining or redirecting as required. This is guidance. When we position students as inquirers, we offer them opportunities to make decisions about their learning every day.”

This is an important step in promoting student agency because it provides them with the support they need, even as we express confidence in their decision-making.

Learning to honor our students’ agency takes time, but it is an investment that is absolutely worth every effort.

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Intentionally Cultivating Abundant, Intrinsic Learning #TeacherMom

I wonder how often I’ll be surprised at the abundance of learning that can happen for kids without the personal intervention of adults.

The latest episode occurred when my 8 year-old asked Google to show her a picture of the solar system so she could create her own LEGO model. This launched when she decided to build a spaceship, which got her thinking, “where will the spaceship land? It’s more fun if there’s a place for the person to land and explore!”

Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Can you tell which is which?

Her exploration was packed with play, discovery, pleasure, energy, and joy.

All this was all fueled by her own delighted fervor to learn. No assignment. No sticker chart. No carrot and stick.

While this learning venture was all her own, there have been intentional steps toward a culture of intrinsic learning. Steps like…

saying no to reading programs that would get in the way of self-selected reading.

…setting up a learning environment with invitations to explore.

intentional language (“what amazing science you’re exploring!” “your interesting connections really make me think.”)

…discussing independent time-management & balance.

second-guessing my agenda before second-guessing her developmental readiness.

treasuring play. As written in a recent Washington Post article,

“the art of the joy of childhood is doing things because they anchor you to the moment, not because they will reap future benefits or rewards. There is a sense of mindfulness children feel when they play that so many of us long for as adults.”

Leaving a child to their own learning devices still actually does involve quite a lot of effort on our part. Sometimes the things to which we say “No” are just as important as the things to which we say “Yes.” As I’ve shared before, in the words of Seth Godin,

“If it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less, and if it’s art, they try to figure out how to do more.”

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5 Ways to Leverage Student Ownership for Improving School Communication

Communication shows up on just about every school’s plans for self-improvement in one way or another. A school might work on newsletters, automated texts, or social media, all of which are worthwhile.

However, as I recently learned at an active transportation conference,

Good solutions solve many problems; access to active transportation solves mobility, but it also addresses obesity, isolation & depression, and connecting with ‘the other'” (Tyler Norris).

Similarly, focusing primarily on student ownership is a good solution that can address many problems; it solves students feeling more invested in their learning, but it also strengthens the school/home connection, lifelong learning, and a more empowering school culture.

Here are some examples of how leveraging student ownership might help improve school communication in particular:

1. More transparent process. Ownership might look like students planning how to spend their learning time, leading workshops to teach peers, co-constructing success criteria, and more. All of these lend themselves to a tone of transparency that will most certainly make its way home to students’ families.

2. Authentic audience. Rather than waiting for that unproductive “what did you learn at school” conversation, students can provide their families with a window into their learning as it unfolds. Tools like Seesaw, student blogging, and more make this doable even for young students.

3. Students’ ability to identify and develop learning goals can grow in ways they can articulate to parents…

4. …which also lends itself to more meaningful conferences.

5. Students learn how to take more meaningful action that often carries over to their local community.

 

Student ownership has so much potential to strengthen our students and our schools. Putting more of the planning and decisions in their hands can yield astonishing results if we are courageous enough to control less and share more.

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Messy Beautiful Learning Happens When… #TeacherMom

…play is seen for what it really is: “the work of childhood.”

…children are permitted to make a space their own.

the desk of the 4 year old. Play dough, dinosaurs, magnetic letters, arctic animals, and some super heroes, all with an important and cohesive role for him.

…they are permitted choose to toss the instruction manuals, mix-and-match, and re-imagine what’s possible.

She decided to mix all the “sets” together to design her own city.

…they are encouraged to plan their time while also given the skills to identify balance and foresight.

…we stand ready to guide, shape, and support their inquiries, while also respecting their choices, voices, and sometimes messy ownership.

via Kath Murdoch’s blog

…we respect our students as the human beings they are, giving feedback grounded in relationships rather than judgement. (much less tidy than a clip chart for behavior, but much more likely to yield growth and learning).

What do you find to be the best conditions for messy, beautiful learning?

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“A” is For Captain America: Following Their Lead for Learning

Despite my commitment to follow my kids’ lead when it comes to their natural developmental learning pace, I still find myself worrying at times. What if they never indicate readiness? What if I miss the signs? What if I wait too long before possible interventions might be needed?

Once again, it has proven to be unnecessary worry. Over the last few months, my 4 year-old has started to indicate interest in identifying letters. This began with, “A is for Captain America!” He began identifying “A’s” everywhere, connecting both to the shape of the letter and its sound.

When he started to add others, like “B is for Black Widow,” I decided to turn to our environment help build this growing interest. We put some vinyl sticker letters to use, reinforcing both superheros and household objects that begin with each letter. How many can you name?

While this was a simple exercise, we’re already seeing him make even more connections beyond the home environment. It stands as a reminder to me that building early literacy does not need to be very complicated. Following the child’s lead is more powerful than we might think.

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“Where’s The Mom?” #TeacherMom


Sure, they may be building independence, problem-solving, time-management, confidence, physical health, risk-taking, and more. But the neighbors don’t see any of that. What they see & think is, “Where’s the mom?”

Never mind that when we were kids, such unsupervised play with a pack of neighbor kids was the norm.

Never mind that contrary to popular belief, the world is actually safer today than it was when we were kids.

Never mind that outdoor play actually addresses dramatically more threatening issues our kids face today, such as anxiety and diabetes.

When a someone recently told me that “Where’s the mom?” is the question asked when they see my kids play, it led me to revisit the way unstructured, unsupervised play has declined since when we were kids (sidebar: what about “Where’s the dad?” If we’re going to be judged, at least let it be equal opportunity judgement!). I have started to wonder whether this is less about protecting kids and more about protecting ourselves from judgement (offline & online) from other adults.

Ultimately, we need to find the courage to set aside those fears and focus on kids’ needs. We have been told, “You can’t be too careful when it comes to kids’ safety.” But the truth is that “an obsession with safety carries its own risks,” not least of which include a child’s diminished sense of autonomy. (see “Child Safety Up, Child Anxiety Up. Hmmm.“).

As a teacher, this seems to have direct parallels in the classroom as well. Both teachers and parents are pressured to make all the decisions in the name of safety or future success. Both are put under such an intense microscope, challenging the status quo is risky business. Both face an ever-present risk of severe judgement.

As a result, child autonomy is suffering, but we have the power to change that. We can:

And of course, it always helps when we find our tribe! There are many Facebook groups (one example here) and Twitter hashtags (#StudentAgency & #studentchoice) where you can find supportive teachers and parents who are similarly working toward childhood independence.

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