Sunday, November 30, 2014

You Need a Bigger Cup

Kindness is important.  But unlike other important things, it really isn't that hard to do.  If you pay attention to those around you, you can figure out what they need.  Often, the things they need aren't all that difficult to provide - a little of your time, a listening ear, a compliment, a joke.  These are things we can give without much effort or investment.

In spite of the ease with which they are given, these little things so a really long way.  Think back to the moments and people in your life that touched you.  It was cold and the kids were cranky, but the guys at the Dunkin Donuts had my order ready as I walked in the door.  Riddled with self-doubt about a decision and my brother said, "you should go for it."  Bored on a Saturday night, and my son asked me to play the Wii with him.  While buying produce on a busy day, the shop keeper gave me a few apples for free.

These acts of kindness took almost no effort on the part of the other person.  In fact, when I received the free apples, I commented "my cup runneth over."  The Amish fellow selling me the apples said, "you need a bigger cup."

Maybe a bigger cup is a thing we all need, but maybe we just need to do a better job at filling the cups of others.  How difficult is it to smile, make coffee, encourage and share?  Not very.  And yet, these simple acts have a profound impact - not just for the person on the receiving end, but for the givers as well.

Blogging this month has been rewarding.  Reflecting on gratitude, I have become more aware of the many people, opportunities and ideas that enrich my life on an hourly basis.  It would seem inappropriate, in a way, to have spent so much time remembering the things for which I am grateful without working to give something back.  And so, I will work on filling the cups of others in small ways, while I continue to acknowledge the countless ways in which my own cup is filled.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Inspired By Maggie

If you have never met my mom, you are really missing out.  She is remarkable.  She raised seven children into (mostly) productive adulthood.  She is a grandmother to ten grandchildren.  She has a beautiful garden and makes wonderful parties.  No one ever feels lonely when they are with her.

Life has not always been easy for Maggie.  She was the oldest of three and grew up in a difficult household.  She was the first of her family to go to college.  There, she met my dad and they inadvertently started a family.  The kids kept coming and the money wasn't always there.  Even so, Maggie made sure everyone was provided for.

She had trained to be a teacher.  Once the children were old enough for her to enter the workforce, she began teaching at a parochial school in Newark, New Jersey.  There, she found out that she hated teaching.

She enrolled in nursing school, but found out she was pregnant at the start of her first semester.  She dropped out, had my brother and tried again.  She went to night school after work.  After she graduated, she went back to school again.

After many years of school and work she got a job as an oncology nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins.  That was only 13 years ago.

She will tell you that she is old.  That everyone else who works at Hopkins is smarter than she is.  As brilliant as she is, I know she is wrong.

Here is the thing about my mom - no one works harder than she does and yet she find time to make special moments for others.  She is insightful and unusually kind.  She welcomes everyone, even the really unwelcome-able.

If you pay attention to Maggie, here is what you learn:

  • Hard work doesn't always pay off in the way you think it will, but it matters.
  • Kindness is the best path.
  • Good parties are worth the effort.
  • It is easy to make a mistake in a relationship, but working to repair the mistake is worth your time.  Even if it doesn't work.
  • If you forgive people, you will feel better.
  • Always have more food and wine than you think you need.
  • Go outside and you will feel better.
I am blessed and very grateful to have Maggie as a mom, friend and role model.  She taught me that "love is a force more formidable than any other."  Which is totally true if you are paying attention...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

3 Simple Things..

It is cold and snowy today, but I can't complain because I had the the day off.  Not having to instruct, facilitate or conference has been delightful.  I folded laundry, finished the crossword puzzle and played (and lost) a game of Trivial Pursuit with my kids.  Really, from the moment I woke up, today has been filled with simple joys (and it is only 3:30!).

But if I were pressed, I'd have to say the three simple things that give me the most joy are:

  • Sunshine.  I know this makes me sound either like a huge John Denver fan or a beach bum (both of which are true for me occasionally), but sunshine is the best.  At the pool or the beach I am sometimes so happy to be in the sun that I jump up and down or cry.  (I never said this was normal).  On winter afternoon, I know exactly where to sit on the sofa to maximize the late afternoon rays.  When it is cold, I park the car in the sun so I can close my eyes and feel the warmth.  Something about the Vitamin D and the light always makes me feel better. No. Matter. What.
  • Coffee with a friend.  I know this sounds cliche.  I drink a lot of coffee, but most of the cups that I consume in a week are on the fly.  To sit with someone I love (my kids, a friend, a colleague) and drink it is a gift.  (If we are in the sunshine, even better).  The power of slowly sipping the hot wonderfulness and listening, dreaming or hoping with another person should never be underestimated.
  • Kindness.  Maybe I am just a ridiculously lucky person, but I am the recipient of so much kindness.  A friend leaves flowers on your desk or gives you a pie (happened this morning, no joke) or asks how you are feeling and means it... These expressions of care and kindness sustain me daily - hourly, even.  And I am very grateful!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Farewell to Alarms

I am bad with time.  Sometimes the period ends and we have more learning and thinking to do.  Other times, we finish the the project or issue at hand and there are still several minutes before the end of the period.  I prefer this to the first option, but still.

Wouldn't it be great if we could let go of the schedules that limit or restrict the time we can spend on a project or idea?  In all honesty, I haven't figured out a practical solution.  I just know that I want one, because if I could let go of one thing, it would be the clock.

Monday, November 24, 2014


When I think about what school should look like in the future, I think of the word OPEN.

  • An open book - Things will be transparent for all stakeholders.
  • Open arms - The way in which we will welcome all students and new ideas.
  • Open floor plan - Classrooms will provide more space for collaboration and projects.
  • Open to new ideas - Schools will be receptive to change and progress.
  • Keep our options open - Schools will not limit themselves by old ways and ideas.
  • Open - Like the U.S. Open, in which everyone can play.
  • Open enrollment - Schools will accept students when it is an appropriate time and not be guided by arbitrary dates.
  • Open season - Opportunities for learning will exists all year long, so that student can have safe places to learn and grow.
  • Open access - All students will have the technology needed for success.
The word open has many uses, but basically means to un-close or unfasten.  It is high time we open quality education up for everyone and remove existing boundaries to deep and meaningful learning and growth.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Saying "Thank You" More Often

I have been working on this my whole life, it seems.  Saying "thank you" is an easy thing to forget.  But I have been more intentional with my thanks this month with some pretty cool results:

  • Ending each class by saying to students "thanks for your hard work and ideas today."  When I first started this, I think they were were confused.  Now they say things like"it was a great discussion" or "I can't wait til tomorrow for keep working on this" as they leave class.  It feels good to acknowledge their willingness to engage.  As I've said before, they don't have to give their attention and effort and we certainly can't force it.  So much better for them to participate meaningfully and willingly.
  • Thanking my colleagues more often.  Not just for lending a pencil or watching my class for a few seconds, but for their ideas.  I value them and I have been working hard to let them know.
  • More donuts.  Bad for the waistline, great for motivation. 
None of these were difficult to do, but all of them had an impact.  The funny thing is, I think I am more impacted as the giver of thanks than the receivers have been.  I have become more aware of those around me - their needs, wants and gifts - for which I am very grateful.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Chaos & Love

I have a huge family.  Two sons, four sisters, two brothers, nine nieces and nephews plus in-laws and random pets.  My mother taught us that the thing that defined family was love.  That means we have to add more people to the group - uncles and aunts, close friends and neighbors.

Therefore, the defining family tradition is chaos.  We are loud.  We make scenes.  Not in a bad way, mind you, but we do really stand out.  When we all go to the beach, we lug 20 chairs and two cabanas.  Thanksgiving dinner has to take place in two rooms.  Christmas got to be so expensive, we stopped giving gifts all together.  When you show up with this many people, you are bound to get noticed.

Love is a messy thing.  Sometimes there are disputes and often we have lively debates.  We get mad, but move on.  Maya Angelou said, "I sustain myself with the love of family."  The longer am part of the messy and wonderful thing called family - infused with love, drama, heartache and forgiveness - the more I appreciate the truth in these words.  Chaos is our tradition.  And the chaos is beautiful.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Vocabulary Matters!

Choosing just one book that has transformed my teaching feels a little like choosing a favorite child.  I just can't do it.  But the longer I work in Special Education, the more I realize that vocabulary is often a barrier to comprehension.  I see it every day.  Students struggle with concepts because they lack the vocabulary to discuss and understand them.  As teachers, we need to give them more than simple exposure to words.  Students need deep understanding of words, shades of words, word origins, similar words, examples and non-examples in order to truly own a word.

One of the books on my shelf that gets frequent use is Vocabulary Games for the Classroom by Lindsay Carleton and Robert Marzano.  The book provides comprehensive lists of words and concepts that should be understood at the various levels of learning.  Also, there are a myriad of games which are fun and provide a deep understanding of the terms.

A favorite in my class is Which One Doesn't Belong?  Modeled after the song "one of these things is not like the others, three of these things are kind of the same," students must make a category for three of the four terms presented and explain why they belong.  The game can fit in any class or discipline and is fairly easy to prepare on the fly.  It provides multiple exposures to words, but also helps students sort them for meaning.

Try it out!  And Happy Friday!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Change Happens

Life presents many lessons.  Some are easier than others to learn.  In many ways, I am pretty slow learner, too.

But a thing that I am grateful to have learned is this: change happens.  We often don't want it to.  Rarely are we ready for the change.  It is easy to react to change with negative feelings or fear (I blogged about learning not to react with fear a while back.)

My son is on the autism spectrum.  When he was smaller, we both hated change.  For him, it meant facing the unexpected.  For me, it meant helping him cope with anxiety.  We had ways to address changes in the routine when I knew they were approaching.  But together we had to learn to cope with the unexpected changes.

It was hard, but the funny thing is, he led the charge.  I am not sure how it happened, but I learned from this boy who once hated change that change can be pretty cool.  On the other hand, it might be dreadful.  Either way, it will happen.  And - this is the cool part - it will change again later on.

As much a we may wish to cling to the known and keep things predictable, we can't.  Ever.  Change happens and we must learn to accept and embrace the change.  Because another change is already on its way.

Thanks for helping me learn this, George.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

One small step for Karen, one giant leap for our school

Karen is pretty great.  She can help you solve any problem and she has creative and fantastic ideas.  The problem with being like Tr. Karen is, everyone assumes you can and will help out.  Trust me, she will help you.  But it is important to remember to thank her anyway.

Today I did just that - although I like to think that most days, I remember to say thanks.  But today, I called her on my drive home.  It was a bad time to call, I'm sure.  She was already home and I could hear her kids in the background.  But what she had done in a meeting today was nothing short of miraculous and I wanted her to know.  Not via text or email the way we normally communicate - but with my voice.

You know what?  I don't think she knew how remarkable her actions had been.  She seemed a little shocked when I put the whole story in perspective for her. (She joined our faculty last spring and didn't know all the parts and quirks that went into today's discussion.) I was blown away by her success and she thought it was just another day at school.

Karen is competent, thorough and thoughtful.  She probably already knows that.  But she is also insightful, caring, respectful of others' ideas and just plain awesome.  It felt good to tell her about her giant leap today.  And remind her that she is nothing short of amazing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The most wasted of all days is one without laughter

I am so lucky to have wonderfully brilliant and funny colleagues.  Together we do some pretty remarkable things.  They have great ideas, are always patient and work harder than any other teachers I've ever met.

Of all their many attributes, though, I am most grateful for their humor.  Without laughter, the world (and our school) would be a sad and lonely place.  Some days are difficult, but my colleagues always, always, always find a way to lighten a heavy day with playfulness and wit.  Their ability to laugh and to be silly is sustaining.  And I am grateful.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Seeking the Courage I Lack(ed)

A year ago, it probably wasn't as rainy as today was.  It might have been warmer, too.  It wasn't a Monday, either.

I went back and read some emails from this time last year and I learned that we had had a dance over that weekend.  The students had fun and so did the teachers.  I was getting ready for a parent conference that had the potential to be uncomfortable.  The students had held a pretzel sale earlier in the week to raise money for tsunami victims.  It was a busy time.

I remember needing a lot of coaching to feel confident.  More than I need now.

Confidence has always been a thing that I lack.  It just doesn't come naturally.

Remember that scene in The Sound of Music when Maria travels to the Von Trapp's and she sings "I Have Confidence"?  She sings and dances through the streets of Salzburg swinging her luggage and guitar, only to find that she is still afraid?  Yup, that's me.

Faking confidence does work - I will not lie.  But as I walked out of school the other day carrying my bookbag and my son's guitar, I did the dance myself.  I am pretty sure that if anyone saw me in the parking lot, they would have thought I was insane.  But the truth is, I was feeling pretty darn confident and, for a change, I didn't need the song to persuade me.

Many people and events have gone into this change.  I am grateful.  And I have confidence!


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Get Some Perspective

Being a connected educator is wonderful for many reasons.  I love the ease with which I can access ideas and inspiration.  Relying on and building upon the ideas of others makes me more efficient and effective.  

But the best thing about being connected is gaining perspective.  By ourselves, it is easy to think that the issues and problems we face are unique.  To a certain extent, situations are unique to the schools in which they occur.  But if we try and solve them in a solitary state, we are working harder than we need to be and we are overlooking the valuable experience of other schools and educators.

Being connected exposes me to solutions that I would not have considered alone.  It also makes me realize that I am not alone. Situations I face with students, colleagues and parents have been faced and overcome by other educators.  Knowing this makes me realize that they are not insurmountable and I don't need to problem solve alone.  Problems that seem huge really aren't and solutions that seem impossible become attainable.  A little perspective goes a really long way.

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Blessed Are the Nerdy

A few months ago, my kids and I were driving past a local church.  Their digitized sign was displaying the oft quoted line from the Sermon on the Mount "Blessed are the needy."  From our vantage point in the car, the words seemed to read "Blessed are the nerdy."  We laughed, but agreed that the "nerdy" have enriched our lives so much, that they really ought to be blessed.

In thinking about the technology tools that enhance my practice, it is impossible select just one - or even just a few.  Likewise, it is foolhardy, as things come and go. They are effective for a time and then become passe.

So the "technology" that I am most grateful for are the nerdy, the innovators, the people who see a need and develop an amazing, fun, easy and engaging way to solve it.  Those people, organizations and companies make classrooms run smoothly.  They allow lessons to be more interactive and teachers to be more organized.  They create ways for collaboration to occur between and among all people involved in the wonderfully messy world of education.  And they help us all to innovate.

Thank you, all you nerdy, brilliant innovators.  You make us all better!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Lessons Learned

Michelangelo said "Ancora Imparo" when he was 87.  I am not quite that old and not nearly as fantastic as he, but I have always like this quote.  Most teachers do.  But in spite of the fact that I am still learning and hope to remain so for the rest of my life, there are some things that I have learned in my years as a teacher.  Things I didn't expect, but once I understood, enhanced my practice and made me a happier teacher.

I am not the expert.  Sure, I know a lot, but there are deep chasms of things that I don't know.  I love being able to say to my students, "Great question!  I don't know the answer, but let's find out, shall we?"  It is both freeing for me and empowering for them.  Phew.

Student input matters.  Students spend all day in our classrooms.  We ask a great deal of them and, yet, it wasn't until very recently that educators figured out the key to buy-in is voice.  My students do their very best work when I ask for their input.  What is a good homework assignment?  How should we evaluate this piece?  What questions have we not answered?  Their responses are incredible, but we only hear them if we ask.

Paper is expensive.  Go digital.  People lose papers.  Dogs sometimes do eat homework.  Technology is engaging for students, easy to use and better for managing work.  Paper and pencil lend themselves to some tasks, but most others can be performed digitally.  

Students respond to the way you treat them.  If you yell at them, they yell back.  If you baby them, they become incompetent.  If you treat them with respect and allow them to show maturity, they will rise to the occasion.  Always.

Have fun.  Be silly.  Sing dumb songs.  Play games.  Let students laugh.  You feel better.  They feel better.  And everyone learns a great deal more.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Road Trip!

I don't get a whole lot of "me time."  School responsibilities - planning, evaluating, communicating with students and parents and keeping up with professional reading - are time consuming.  Family commitments take up plenty of time, too - spending time with my kids, keeping us from living in abject squalor and feeding my two teenage boys who are constantly hungry.

The truth is, I love my life and I really love being busy.  So I don't complain.  Instead, I carve out a little time each day to drive alone and listen to the radio loudly.  Very loudly.

This is probably bad for both my hearing and my image as a professional, but I don't care.  Driving alone with songs that I love instantly fixes my mood.  It is like magic.  Even if my mood is not in need of repair, I try to find a reason to drive someplace by myself.  If I hear Under Pressure on the radio - even better!  When Freddie Mercury sings, "why can't we give love, give love, give love, give love, give love..." I am reminded of how fortunate I am to be able to give and receive some much love.  So, I sing along.  Loudly.  Very loudly.  Who cares if those other drivers think I'm a weirdo?  After all, "love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

There's a Place in the Sun

Grateful for
my two awesome sons, 
my family, 
meaningful, challenging and rewarding work,
the beach,
the pool,
paper cups of wine,
& Vitamin D

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

React Positively

What "lesson" do I want students to learn?  This was a hard one.  There are many things I want them to know - lessons that took me years to learn - but which is the most important?  I had lots of ideas, but they all had a downside:

Try new things!  Hmmm.  Might lead to risky behaviors.
Show confidence, even when you don't feel it!  Could lead to cockiness.
Don't be afraid!  Sometimes fear is a good thing...

You see my problem.  There are many things we want students to learn so that they can be happy, productive people who set goals and work hard to attain them.  The more I thought about life's most important lessons, the more I realized they are all tied to this:

When something unexpected happens, react positively.

It is easy when confronted with an obstacle to view it as "the worst problem ever."  Change is scary and presents us with the unknown.  If we think back to changes we have faced, we realize that they are rarely as traumatic as we imagined they would be.

This is a hard thing to remember.  Many times during this school year alone, I have been confronted with the unexpected.  I wanted to go up to my classroom or sit in my car and cry.  I came pretty close to doing that very thing just this afternoon following a faculty meeting.  "This is the worst news ever!," I thought.  But then I remembered this:  I really don't know if this news is bad or good.  It seems bad now, but I really don't have all the information I need to decide if this is the worst thing ever or not.  I need to react positively.

And I need to encourage others - students especially - to keep this in mind when they face change.  Is it new? Yes!  Is is scary? Probably.  Will I survive it?  Most certainly.  When we embrace this mindset, we are open to opportunity, rather than paralyzed by fear.

When something unexpected happens, react positively.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Dismissal Dance Party

I laugh all day long, it seems.  I am fortunate enough to be able to find humor in most situations.  I try to use humor effectively to keep the learning lively and memorable.

But there are some moments that stand out from others as just plain hilarious.  For me, many of these came this summer when I was directing the summer program at my school.  It gave me the opportunity to interact with younger kids - who are funny in ways that are so different from the teenagers who fill my typical school days.

This summer, I learned from one kid that the movie "Frozen" should have been called "Puke Yodeling."  And another told me that he had super powers which exempted him from learning to read.  A third student taught me how to herd dragons and how to tell the good ones apart from the mean ones.

But the funniest moment of summer school came on the penultimate day.  The students had lobbied for a Dismissal Dance Party and I had obliged.  Unfortunately, the DJ's mom picked him up a few minutes early, prompting disappointment from the group.  Fortunately, another student bravely stepped in and said, "I can be the DJ, Tr. Nancy.  I have my iPad."

Our new DJ was among the shorter kids in summer school.  But his personality was large.  For his first selection, he played "Intergalactic" by the Beastie Boys.  The other Dismissal Dancers (including me) were a little shocked - expecting something contemporary, at least.  But we all came around and were singing "Intergalactic planetary" by the end.  For his final selection (dismissal is mercifully brief) our DJ announced he was going to play his all-time favorite song.

I wish I had taken pictures of the looks on the faces of the Dismissal Dancers when they heard Johnny Horton's "Sink the Bismark."  The confusion was palpable and no one really "danced."  The buses and moms all arrived to gather their bewildered children.  I thanked the DJ for his service and went inside to laugh my head off.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Express Your Gratitude!

Recognizing that we feel gratitude is a good thing.  The problem is, we often don't make it beyond that stage.  Time constraints often get in the way of our ability to express gratitude.  We feel it, but we don't always make the time to show it.

Expressions of gratitude, no matter how small, go a really long way.  Think back to the times someone said thank you to you.  Maybe it was your boss, a student, a colleague or parent. Chances are, it make you feel appreciated, but it also made you just plain happy.  You felt gratitude for their gratitude because they took note of something that you did.  Expressions of gratitude matter.

School days are busy, but showing gratitude doesn't have to take up a whole lot of time.  In fact, there are some easy ways to promote gratitude in schools.  Here are some easy ways I have found to promote gratitude:

  • Saying "thank you" to students often and publicly when they share an idea, ask a thought provoking question, help another student, submit their work on time, try hard, share a great joke, do the right thing, etc. etc.  Students don't really need to do these things, so it is important to acknowledge their effort and commitment.
  • Writing a quick note - even if it is just a post-it note - to say "thanks."  Students, teachers, administrators and support staff should all receive these.  Often.
  • An inexpensive gift.  At the holidays and the end of the year, I always give a little something to students and colleagues.  Sometimes a cheap pen or a pack of silly post-it notes says a great deal.  I want the people in our school to know that I appreciate their effort and skills - as well as their willingness to share them.
  • Donuts!  Students love a good donut and sharing them is a great way to say thanks for participating fully in our class discussion.
  • Gratitude writing.  Every now and again I have the students write for four minutes without picking up their pencils.  The rules are simple: Write or draw what ever you are grateful for.  Students can share if the like.  I learned this strategy at a mindfulness class I took a few years ago.  At that time, our school started implementing the Learning To Breathe curriculum, which has many effective ways to help students feel and express gratitude.  I am always amazed by the depth of the responses.  Students share that they are grateful for everything from family to hot water heaters to the kindness of others to their bus driver.  Every single time I have asked the students to gratitude write and then after four minutes said "please stop writing," I have been met with groans and complaints of "but I had more to say."  It is a powerful tool.
William Arthur Ward said, "feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it."  Let's all make sure that we are wrapping and giving the gifts of our gratitude!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Clean Chalk Boards & Community

I have been fortunate to have many "memorable moments" in class which have served as reminders of why I show up every day.  These moments come in all different packages.  Sometimes it is the "aha" moments of learning, when a student figures something out for the first time.  Sometimes it comes in the form of a compliment paid by a student, parent, colleague or administrator.  Other times, it is the feeling of accomplishment that comes from the entire class when the students recognize that they all played a big part in the success of the discussion, assessment, project or performance.

Being a #reflectiveteacher heightens my sense of awareness of these moments.  It helps me to stop and recognize - often publicly - that this moment was special.  Once I start looking for them, I find them all over the place.

But I would be remiss if I didn't use this opportunity to blog about one of my favorite students ever.  His name was Sidney and he was "messy."  School was not his favorite place, nor was it something he was particularly good at.  I had Sidney in the mid 1990's.  He liked to talk in class and he loved to roam the hallways.  I had a soft spot for him from the beginning.

Sidney stayed after school every day.  Not because I asked him to, but because he loved to wash my boards.  No one ever washed chalkboard as well as Sidney.  He stayed after school every day for the entire year and the year after.  Even when he went to high school down the street, Sidney walked to his old school, to my class, to wash my boards.

We didn't just clean the boards, of course.  Sometimes we worked on homework together.  Sometimes we ate snacks.  There were other students who would stay after, and Sidney always chatted with them, asking questions and goofing around with them.

When the building engineer would kick us all out at the end of the day, Sydney would often walk me to my car.  "This is a rough neighborhood, Ms. Ironside.  I want to make sure no one messes with you."

Sidney was killed a few years later in a shooting.  My boards - and my heart - have never been the same.  The thing about the moments I spent with him was they weren't about his academics or his skills.  They were about his needs (and mine) for community, understanding and acceptance.  

I have this picture on my desk of him.  It is a Polaroid of us and I don't remember who took it, even.  But it serves as a reminder to be kind always - especially to the "messy kids."  Sidney reminds me to have fun.  To eat snacks and to laugh.  To create safe spaces for students to connect and be together. To walk each other to our cars and to always, always clean the boards at the end of the day.

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Mighty Flame Followeth a Tiny Spark

Here is an embarrassing fact - all learning excites me!  But the new learning that has excited me the most is the Genius Hour model.  The very premise of allowing students to select an area of study sends a powerful message - "Your interests matter."  The fact that it is question based and process oriented teaches students to be active in their learning.  The many road blocks they face over the course of a project teaches them determination and grit.

Genius Hour really is just a fancy name for an old idea.  A person has a question or problem and seeks to find an answer or solution.  But giving the idea a name, also gives it a voice.  I admit that I was not always comfortable with the idea that students could direct their own learning.  After all, I went to graduate school, darn it, I should know what they need to learn.

But the world has changed and so must our schools.  Learners need to be empowered to learn.  We need to get excited about ideas.  We need to create, build, remodel and redesign.  We need to fail and we need to succeed.  We need to collaborate and share.  Teachers get to do this.  Why not students?

Genius Hour meets all of the essential learning needs - plus it is a ton of fun.  All the learner needs is a tiny spark and the space to discover.  Was there ever a better time to be a teacher?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

I know of nothing else but miracles...

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles
-Walt Whitman
There are many quotes that move and motive me, but none quite like Walt's. In this poem, Whitman is saying that miracles are everywhere and commonplace. He argues with the popular notion that miracles are rare and happen only occasionally.  
I agree with Walt and have been fortunate to witness and appreciate daily miracles. Sometimes, I even benefit from the big and rare variety of miracles.  
For me, the best part of being a teacher is having the opportunity to behold these holy and commonplace miracles all the time. As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

I Try, Therefore I Am

It seems funny to list some of my strengths today.  I just came home from playing tennis with my teenage sons (not a strength) and today was one of those days at school when my weaknesses seemed to be more on display than my strengths.

That said, I can easily say that the strength I am most grateful for is my ability to try new things.  The funny thing is, I wasn't always the bold attempt-er that I am today.  In fact, I was well into adulthood before I learned to be comfortable with trying new things.  I used to be afraid that trying new things would result in failure.  What I eventually realized is that trying new things often DOES result in failure.  But it also results in pretty amazing things.

Not only that, but my ability to try new things has made me more appreciative about the amazing things that others think and do.  Trying new things is exciting, freeing and humbling.  I get a thrill when I get to try a new technology or approach.  It is wonderfully liberating to know that I don't have to have all the answers myself.  Trying new things is humbling - not only in the moments when I fail, but in those moment when I succeed with an idea that someone else conceived.  I can honestly say that my ability to try new things has significantly improved not only my practice, but my overall outlook on life!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Animal Crackers Abound!

Several years ago, I leaked the info that animal crackers are one of my favorite foods.  A student, Jack, took this to heart.  Later that week, I received a phone call after school from the extended day room.  Jack was calling to let me know that the snack was animal crackers and I should come downstairs to partake.  I willingly obliged.

As that school year wore on, I was called frequently in the afternoons to share in some animal crackers.  If I didn't make it downstairs in time, I would find a bowl of them on my desk the next day.

Once, the school bus driver and the building engineer each left me packages of animal crackers on the same day.  Another time, a student brought in a big, huge bag of animal crackers to share.  It was pretty fantastic.

I know that animal crackers aren't much to look at.  Most of the time, you can barely identify the animal the cracker is supposed to represent.  Like those elephants with the freakishly large trunk or the mutant rabbit.  Animal crackers aren't much more than processed white flour and refined sugar.  But put those pieces together - the silly shapes with the simple flavor - and magic happens.

It is even more magical when someone goes out of your way to share them with you!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Yay, Me!

I feel proud at work often.  Typically, the pride I feel is in my students - when they overcome a difficult problem, when they experience personal or academic success or when they are really kind to others.

Pride in myself is harder to come by.  On some days, I feel discouraged because the lesson didn't go well or too many students did poorly on an assessment. I call these "Duh, Me Days".  On other days, I just feel like I am doing my job - helping students learn, grow and ask questions.  Every now and again, I have a real Yay, Me kind of day.

My best ever Yay, Me day came at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.  That winter, we had our accreditation visit from the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools.  The entire faculty had been working very hard to gather the necessary documents and write the appropriate reports for months in advance of the visit.  A team of educators from other independent schools came for three days to visit classrooms, talk to students and parents, meet with committees and make sure we were doing what we should be.

The part of the story I am leaving out is this: I had been hired just two years before to start up the Middle School.  Historically, our school was K-6, but the decision was made in 2010 to add 7th & 8th grade.  I was hired, not to teach every class, but to work with other teachers to ensure that our program was effective and rigorous.

At the time of the accreditation visit, I did not know that the Middle School program was being evaluated separately from the Lower School.  However, as I found out in June, the Middle School was judged independently and - after only two years - was accredited.

I felt extreme pride.  First, in my team of amazing teachers.  We had built a solid program which was aligned with standards and met the needs of students.  But I also felt a great deal of pride in myself.  I had worked hard to make sure our program was researched based and rigorous, but also compatible with the culture of the Lower School.  I had spent long hours planning, thinking and promoting our program.  Mostly because I had fallen a little in love with it.  And I was thrilled that the accreditation team was in love with it, too!  Yay, me!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"A" for the Day

Teaching brings many small delights.  I enjoy the early mornings when I am preparing for the day ahead and the classroom is quiet.  I like having lunch duty twice a week, because I get to interact with the students and hear their personal stories.  I enjoy my tutorial period when I can help students with academic or personal questions.

But my favorite delight is when I give out the "A for the Day."  While this sounds like a very formal event, it is not.  I never, ever plan who gets the "A for the Day" in advance.  I never really keep track either, although I probably should.

It works like this:  A student does something public and awesome.  I become overcome with joy.  The A for the Day is awarded.

That seems rather capricious, I know, to award the A for the Day in a fit of academic euphoria, and it may well be.  In my defense, you should know a few things.  This practice started a long time ago.  My students feel tremendous sense of pride when they receive the A for the Day, but they also genuinely congratulate other recipients.  It is not only awarded to the "smart" kids in the class.  Every student in each of my classed has received the A for the Day.  There is no gift or physical reward attached to the A for the Day, just public recognition for a job well done.

What causes the academic euphoria that motivates me to award the A for the Day?  Lots of things.  When a student refers to the text or a fact to support their opinions.  When they ask a thought provoking question.  When they have been struggling with a concept for a while, but they finally get it straightened out.  When they give effective feedback to others.  When they ask another student for help. When they speculate about word choice.  When they show grit and determination.

Like many delights, awarding the A for the Day just happens naturally, without any planning or build up.  It just happens.  And it is the brief moment of each day which bring me the greatest delight.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Emerson on Teaching

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

Ralph Waldo Emerson was talking about success, not education, when he wrote this, but for me, it has always and very eloquently summarized the best parts about being a teacher.

I love that he begins the list with laughter.  In my class, we laugh almost all the time.  In fact, I can assure that a student would say that RWE's mom did love him very much if she gave him "Waldo" as part of his name.  Teachers must be good at using humor to help students remember and connect with content.  We also enjoy the ability to laugh (in private) about the funny errors students make.  Recently, a student told his discussion group that "Russians fought in the American Revolution."  He meant "Hessians."  It was funny.

If teachers are fortunate and wise, they will connect with other educators.  This enables us to "win the respect of intelligent people," "earn the appreciation of honest critics" and "endure the betrayal of false friends."  It helps us take a stand for what we believe in and become articulate advocates for best practices.

If educators are careful, they can help a "life to breathe easier."  This happens in small, but palpable ways in classrooms all over the world.  While as a society we need to improve the systems which will "redeem the social condition" of poverty and disparate educational funding, teachers work on a small scale to accomplish this every day.

Emerson leaves out entirely the issue of problem solving, however.  Instead, he focuses on the goal, not the process.  But I would be remiss if I didn't say that the process of problem solving is yet another one of my favorite things about being a teacher.  Are all of the students understanding this?  How can I present this information in an engaging way?  Did we cover that concept deeply enough?  What questions are the students not asking?  How can I communicate this information best to their parents?  Would my grade partner have an idea that would help?  What does the research say about this issue?  Am I encouraging students to think for themselves?  Asking these types of questions poses intellectual and moral challenges, which add meaning to our life's work.  If classrooms had easy answers, they wouldn't be much fun.

Emerson reminds us to "find the best in others."  Grouchy students, irate parents, and frustrating colleagues all have their positive qualities and it is essential that I remember to look for them.

The real reason I love this quote is the "to appreciate beauty" part.  In the midst of planning, assessing, evaluating and communicating it is import to keep this in mind.  As a teacher, I behold beauty all the time -  when a student masters a skill that was difficult to attain, when they show kindness to each other, when they ask a wonderful question, or when their interest is ignited and they seek to learn on their own.  This kind of beauty is so pure, so human and, yet, so mysterious.  It is this beauty that is my favorite aspect of being a teacher.