Choosing Courage Over Fear

It’s now been over three years since I’ve been in the classroom. Three years. And while I miss being in the classroom, I can honestly say that thanks to the many incredible teachers in my PLN, not a day has passed that I haven’t learned more about how to return to the classroom a better teacher.

A powerful example came recently when I read this thought-provoking post from my friend Abe (@Arbay38). One of his comments perfectly articulated one of my fears of shifting toward more student voice, choice and ownership:


The rest of his post greatly assuaged this fear, but I’ve continued to reflect on this question over the past couple of weeks. But then, he shared something else on Twitter — something so profound, that I think I can finally put this fear completely to rest:


This child has reminded me once and for all that the bottom line is doing what’s best for kids. Withholding opportunities for autonomy now for fear of future constraints is like refusing to build the ship for fear of future rough waters.

Isn’t the possibility that they may not experience this kind of autonomy in future classrooms all the more reason to help them cultivate it now? To help them reflect now why it matters, and how they’ll respond to its absence in the future?

Our students deserve the very best we can offer right now. And as we regularly ask them to choose courage over fear through risk-taking and the growth mindset, we can be the first to model that back: choosing courage over fear.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

In Which Twitter Shows My 6 Year-Old Her Voice Counts #TeacherMom

Two weeks ago, I posted a list of “not-boring learning books.” When I shared it on Twitter, I tagged several of the authors in case they got the chance to see their books made a 6 year-old’s cut.

I’m sure most probably just didn’t see it. A few hit “favorite” and a couple retweeted. But Bethany Barton, author of, “I’m Trying to Love Spiders,” responded:

I read it to my daughter. She squealed and responded:

And then one more reply from Bethany:

This was pure gold. Not only did it completely make my daughter’s day, but it reinforced to me the value of Twitter (and other social platforms) for our children and students everywhere. The way it creates possibilities for real, meaningful connection. The way it brings to life faraway names and places. The way it globally amplifies a voice, and then brings audiences back down to a personal scale.

It also reminds me of all the other wonderful examples of this that I’ve seen recently, many of which I shared on Monday with the staff at my old school as I ran a few PD sessions:

My daughter and these other young children can’t yet navigate these platforms independently. But they are already starting to catch a glimpse of the digital world and their place and power in it. And I rejoice for such positive and meaningful introductions. I wonder what would happen if students everywhere had similar experiences…

featured image: Case Wade

Evolution of the Narrative in Picture Books (& Ideas For Your Next Library Visit)

I just finished putting a slew of new picture books on hold at our local public library.

Some were new releases by more contemporary beloved authors, like a new Jon Klassen (Another hat book! “We Found a Hat”), Andrea Beaty (“Ada Twist, Scientist”), and Oliver Jeffers (“A Child of Books”).

Others were by newly discovered authors like Amy Young (“A Unicorn Named Sparkle”) and Dan Yaccarino (“I Am a Story”).

And one was Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo,” which I should really just go ahead and buy already, because my 2 year-old is obsessed with cows.

As my mind sifts through all these authors’ styles, I’m struck by the huge amount of creative narrative voice out there these days. And even more by how dramatically the narrative seems to have evolved over the course of my lifetime.

Classics I enjoyed in my youth, such as Tomie Paola’s “Strega Nona,” Rafe Martin’s “The Rough-Face Girl,” James Marshall’s “Miss Nelson is Missing,” and Ellen Jackson’s “Cinder Edna” (publications ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s), almost always used a more traditional third-person narrative and voice.

A larger flux of first-person reads comes to mind when I think of the 2000’s, like Melinda Long’s “How I Became A Pirate” and Jane O’Connor’s “Fancy Nancy.”

And today it seems like most of the books I check out have incredibly unique narrative techniques and voice–so much so that it’s hard to neatly classify them. There’s Adam Rubin’s playful way of alternating speaking directly to the reader (“Hey, kid! Did you know dragons love tacos?”) and to other characters (“Hey, dragon, how do you feel about spicy taco toppings?”). Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s “Battle Bunny” with its dual narration. And of course, B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures” is truly in a narrative league of its own.

The upside of this shift is obviously our literary enjoyment.

But a potential downside/caution can arise when teachers get stuck in a rut on what a story should look like. Especially if they haven’t familiarized themselves with these modern classics that don’t always comply with the rules. Especially if they push the upside-down V story map so hard that students’ creative voices are quelled when their stories lack a setting (like Mo Willems’ Pigeon books) or when their pictures–not their words–illustrate the problem (like Mac Barnett’s “Sam & Dave Dig a Hole”).

In the end, I think the most important take-away is that it’s easier for us as teachers and parents to embrace the creativity if we stay current on it ourselves. If we stay stuck in the nostalgia of how things looked in our childhood, we may miss incredible opportunities to re-imagine and push the status quo.

new-picture-books

featured image: Kurt

10 Tips for Tough Conversations between Home & School

I was devastated. It was my first email from a parent expressing unhappiness, and I struggled to take it in stride. After all, I was devoting all my intellectual, emotional, and even physical capacity toward my students’ success and well-being. Yet the parent reported that her daughter had been spending longer and longer evenings frustrated over homework, culminating in one tearful 2½-hour evening of math.

What I hadn’t yet recognized was just how difficult it can be for parents to send such emails to begin with. Despite the fact that they entrust their children to our care for 7+ hours a day, parents often face debilitating intimidation to reach out.

So this is a post for those parents, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, their children go unseen at school. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their children seem to struggle for belonging in vain.  

But this is also a post for teachers like me, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, they have overlooked a student’s needs. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their students seem to struggle for belonging in vain.

This is a post for us all. Because no matter how fleeting, these moments are real–and raw, and messy, and dark. And no one, not parents, not teachers, and especially not our students, should have to face them alone.

#1

Parents: Just click send. Have courage to speak. You can spend the rest of the year worrying and hoping for things to improve, or you can open the channels now for clarity and support.

Teachers: Recognize and validate that courage. Look at every email from parents as an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

#2

Parents: Don’t underestimate your voice. Yes, teachers and administrators are professionals, but they are also human beings. And most are striving for positive change and growth every day. You have an opportunity to be part of that change if you only let your voice be heard.

Teachers: If you make sure you daily revisit your priority to find better ways to reach your students, the rest will follow, including recognizing the value of parent voices in that pursuit.

#3

Parents: Recognize that criticism doesn’t equal disrespect. Even while facing serious concerns for their children, I’ve heard parents express, “Well, they’re the professionals, right? So I should trust what they’re doing.” Again, even the most phenomenal teachers and administrators can and do make mistakes. You can absolutely convey concerns without being disrespectful.

Teachers: As hard as it can be, take it in stride. Even if some parents seem undiplomatic in their communication, remember that you are united in the common goal of promoting their child’s welfare.

#4

Parents: Remember that they “cannot solve problems that [they] don’t know exist.” (George Couros) Depending on the issue, it may be better for parents to encourage their older children have these conversations with teachers themselves, but especially for your younger children, if you don’t communicate the problem, who will?

Teachers: Except for the rare occasions of absolutely wild and unfounded accusations (we’re talking extremes here that are an entirely different blog post), each of these emails are an opportunity for you to reflect. Remember to seek support from your administrators, particularly when problems stem from a more complex source.  

#5

Parents: Acknowledge the big picture. To minimize an accusatory tone, include what is going well, and, if applicable, acknowledge possible extenuating circumstances you’ve observed that may be contributing to the problem. However, be sure to remain clear on what you have observed to be an issue.

Teachers: Try to be proactive in communicating with parents to begin with, giving them abundant opportunities for interaction, as well as a window into what’s really happening in their child’s classroom. Problems sometimes stem from differing or even misguided notions of pedagogy, but if you give parents a chance to thoroughly see the why behind what you do, you are more likely to bridge those gaps.

#6

Parents: Be specific. Give details, examples, and anecdotes of what you are observing. It’s easier for teachers and administrators to address what’s going on if you can give them a clear picture. If possible, try to volunteer in the classroom at least once before sending the email–chances are, either you’ll find it unnecessary after all, or else you may find additional details you may want to include in your communication.

Teachers: Remember that there’s a difference between just saying you welcome volunteers and facilitating an easy way for parents to volunteer. Create a Google Spreadsheet outlining what you could use help with and with slots to volunteer (see an example I designed for our entire 5th grade team here).

#7

Parents: Express your genuine willingness to help the situation. In the words of Tina Fey, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” Offer to meet for an in-person discussion, or to come in and volunteer. To further make it clear that you would like to be part of the solution, you may also find it helpful to use phrases such as, “I have a question I was hoping you could help me solve,” or “I was wondering what I can do to help address an issue I’ve noticed.”

Teachers: Take advantage of any offer parents make to contribute to the solution. Warmly acknowledge that offer, and be flexible in arranging meeting times.

#8

Parents: Don’t just accept the status quo. “It’s always been that way” should not command blanket approval. It’s not just ok to ask for the supporting research–it’s essential if we hope to move beyond outdated practices within our educational system.

Teachers: Make sure that you refuse to accept the status quo, too! The burden of asking why lies on everyone involved in education.

#9

Parents: Don’t assume. Remember that as you express your concern, do so as objectively as possible. Simply share what you have observed, and allow your teacher/administrator the opportunity to investigate and share the the cause.  

Teachers: Ditto. Resist the temptation to assign motive or labels to the parent.

#10

Parents: Recognize appropriate channels. It can be difficult to determine whether to direct your issue to the teacher or an administrator. Generally, if it is related to happenings within the classroom, it’s better to email the teacher; if it seems to be a more widespread or policy-based issue, it may be better suited for an administrator. When in doubt, email teachers first, because they can always pass it along to the administration if it is out of their hands–and you can always follow-up with the administration later if you are unable to reach a resolution with the teacher.

Teachers: Don’t assume that a parent is trying to go over your head if they email your principal first–they may simply be unsure how much power you have to address their concern.

Returning to my above-mentioned email, in the end, I was simply grateful. That parent’s email gave me the chance to reinforce what a priority my students’ well-being was to me. During our next class meeting, we revisited that priority, we listened to others’ experiences on homework, and we reminded everyone that sincere effort, balance of time, and best judgement are valued over simple completion of assignments. And all because one parent had the courage to share.

featured image: deathtothestockphoto

10 Signs You’re Contributing to Your Own Classroom Behavior Issues

http://honorsgradu.com/10-signs-youre-contributing-to-your-own-classroom-behavior-issues/

Your students always have to wait on you to know “what’s next.” Picture this hypothetical: your class returns from PE before you get back from a quick bathroom break. What scene do you anticipate facing when you walk into the room? If your vision resembles Lord of the Flies, consider that there may not not as much trust in place as there could be. Let them in on the plan. Ask for their feedback. Consciously strategize to break down the all-too-common game of “student vs. teacher.”

You see choice only as a reward for positive behavior, rather than a means to promote improved behavior. What if, at the beginning of the year, you tell your students that you trust them to choose right now? What if you tell them you’re there to facilitate learning–not to command it? What if you spend more time coaching them to identify and reflect upon their personal learning needs, and less time on determining the daily learning? When you commit to searching out meaningful student choice in learning space, time, and process, classroom management better falls into place.

Your voice is on more often than your students’ voices. There’s a difference between teaching students polite listening skills–and expecting them to have all their attention on you nearly all the time. We can better strategize to give them more time to digest, experiment, and work one-on-one with teachers. One teacher even committed to actually time her blocks of instruction time, keeping them to 10 minutes or less with her 7th graders.

You’ve done little to create parent buy-in. Do you contact parents about the positive more often than the negative? Do you keep a class blog to give them greater insight on the learning in your classroom (or better yet, do your students blog, giving parents, grandparents and other relatives to leave comments on their work?) Do you have a well-organized system for parents to volunteer? If the answer is no to one or more of these, you might be fighting an uphill battle on the home-front.

You rely heavily on treats, tokens, stickers, and other extrinsic rewards. As effective as these extrinsic motivators may seem, they actually tend to diminish students’ authentic motivation to learn and discover. Instead, seek out ways to cultivate more intrinsic motivation.

Many of your assignments are worksheets. Translation: little student-driven learning and inquiry is happening. If you’re feeling pressured to show “student progress” in benchmarks, open up communication channels with your administration to gain their support as you work to move away from drill and kill, and toward lasting and authentic student involvement in their learning.

Your routines are lacking. That’s not to say that you need to hammer down explicit routines for every minute thing (see my thoughts on bathroom permission), but if chaos ensues in the morning, end of day, and every transition in between, consider what you can do differently. A reliable signal and a united sense of purpose can go a long way–especially when you need to deviate from the norm.

You rely more heavily on formal, summative assessments than daily formative assessments. If you don’t have meaningful, daily practices in place that help you gauge student progress, you are missing precious opportunities to inform your teaching. Here are a few strategies that might help:

You do not greet students at the door. It’s less about the doorway, and more about reminding your students that they are your daily reason for being there (see more ideas for building student rapport). If that message ever falters, you can be sure that behavior issues are sure to follow.

You do not hold class meetings. Or an otherwise community-building time that helps build a sense of shared ownership over what happens in the classroom. You may ask yourself if you can afford to spend the time–but you might just find that you need to ask yourself if you can afford not to spend the time.

featured image: Alan Levine via flickr

6 Questions When Considering New Edtech

Given the sheer number of platforms and products, it’s not surprising when teachers despair at thought of seeking out a new #edtech resource. But once we establish some groundwork for what we adopt, it may make the entire decision-making process run more smoothly. Thus the creation of this infographic of 6 important questions to ask yourself when you consider new edtech!

What are other questions you consider? Please share in the comments!

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