Friday, December 18, 2015

Happy rather than dignified..

"I would always rather be happy than dignified."
~Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre)

I've always liked this statement. Having spent my entire adult life with a tenuous grasp on dignity is part of the reason. But the other part is the joy that it invokes. Sometimes in life, you just have to ignore your dignity in favor of joy.

This time of year, it is not difficult to find examples of people willing to choose happiness over dignity. Ugly sweater day, the mail carrier wearing a santa hat, bobbing for candy canes - these are not things that "dignified" people do, and yet they generate so much happiness.

Technology increases our ability to abandon dignity for happiness. Check out my JibJab video as proof. Or go to Twitter for some some entertaining pics under #StarWarsTheForceAwakens. Pretty much everywhere you look, you can find digital examples folks willing to toss their dignity in exchange for a little happiness.

In the next few days, whether you are at school, the supermarket, the mall, the post office, a work event, a family gathering, on the turnpike - wherever - choose happiness over dignity. Even if you feel a little silly, others will appreciate it. Plus, it feels really great! I promise!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Why We Tell The Story

My son left Thursday morning for the 2015 Pennsylvania Thespian Conference. His school was honored to be asked to perform their production of Once On This Island on the Main Stage. It was a big deal.

On Tuesday, the students held an open rehearsal for the hapless parents, as the Conference itself is only for students. I was blown away by the skill, talent and effort of all the students. This was my son's first high school musical production and compared with the middle school shows, it was "next level."

I cried through most of the show - as is my embarrassing custom when students display such passion and commitment. The performance was impressive and reflective of the time and energy they put into learning the songs, accents and steps.

When I dropped my son off on Thursday morning for the bus that would take him to the Conference, I had a feeling that he would not be in touch for the duration - most 14 year old boys aren't into texting their mom and so I pretend to be ok with that.

Fortunately, the Conference has a hashtag and I have been able to keep up with the events via Twitter. Of course, my son doesn't tweet, but many others have. I've seen pictures of his friends and the set.

I've also been able keep up with the buzz about various workshops, lunches, shows, crushes and hotel accommodations. Kind of like a nanny cam for teenagers.

I recognize the pathology in this practice. I could try to reassure you that I have continued to have a normal existence throughout these last few days of digital spying, but I doubt that you'd be persuaded. However, in the process of spying on my child and his counterparts, I was able to recognize some important truths about human existence and how they manifest themselves in teenagers.

The most visible need is voice. As educators, we know that we must allow students to have a voice and that their voice must be heard. Interestingly enough, there are no adults tweeting with this hashtag, but even without adult "supervision," the tweets are clean, respectful, kind and supportive of others and their work. Maybe they got the memo about "managing their digital footprint" or maybe they are just so engaged in their practice that they can recognize and appreciate excellence in others.

As humans, we desire connections and the PA Thespians are no exception. The humorous and positive way the are building community is a powerful lesson for adults.

At the end of Once On The Island, the entire ensemble sings Why We Tell the Story - a song about the importance of giving voice to one's existence and sharing it with others. #pathesfest15 is a beautiful example of why we tell our stories - to connect, to share, to laugh, to complain and be part of something bigger than ourselves.

"Life is why
we tell the story
pain is why
we tell the story
love is why
we tell the story
grief is why
we tell the story
hope is why
we tell the story
faith is why
we tell the story
you are why
we tell the story"

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I cannot concentrate today.

I have a list in front of me of things I need to do. They are important - pressing even. And yet, I cannot concentrate.

My problem is twofold. Tonight is Opening Night for my son's first high school drama performance. He's a good actor and this is a student directed play - so I am interested as a mom AND as an educator. What will it be like? Will everything go as planned? Or well, even?

The other issue is my niece. She is currently driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to from Pittsburgh to my house outside of Philadelphia. I wonder about weather and road conditions. How soon will she be here? Did I buy enough food?

I can't help but laugh at myself. How many times have I said to a student "Pay attention, will ya"? I've said it to myself at least 50 times in the last hour.

Finally, I gave up to blog.

One of two things could happen next. I could immediately become productive OR I could go home and try again tomorrow.

I am feeling like the latter is the better path. After all, I am not sure I did buy enough food...

But the lesson here is clear: distractedness happens to even the best learners. As educators, we must find ways to support the learner - without too much shame - and help them re-engage.

For me, that will happen tomorrow.

But from today on, I will be more understanding of the learner who is looking out the window or tapping her pencil or saying "huh?" when called upon.

Because today, that learner is me.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The New Us

One of my heroes, Maya Angelou, wrote, "It is time for parents to teach young children early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength." I'm willing to bet that most people would agree with this sentiment, at least on the surface.

Where things get complex is in the implementation of this. Sure, we can accept that diversity is beautiful. Even mainstream advertising makes sure that we see images of same-sex couples, persons with physical disabilities, racial differences and interracial families. The new "us" as a nation.

When we think about "US" as a school, community or organization, it can be somewhat more difficult to see the diversity which is so positively embodied in advertising campaigns - even, sometimes, our own. Biases and stereotypes creep their way into the ways we talk about others and the expectations we have for them.

I think of phrases I have overheard within the last year which illustrate these prejudices. To be clear, each of these was uttered by a well-meaning adult.

  • Her language skills make her sound caucasian.
  • Most of our Spanish speakers are scholarship kids.
  • He doesn't fit with our school's mission.
  • Can't we just have a separate transgender bathroom?
  • You can't expect him to do that because of his diagnosis.

Statements like these not only reveal our biases, but they also make "US" into more of a "US with a few THEMS thrown in." When we think, talk and behave this way, it shows that our "US" is pretty narrow and we have difficulty broadening who we are to include everyone.

Again, I want to be clear that the people who have uttered these statements are caring educators who want the best for their students. They work hard to meet the diverse needs of those within their schools and classrooms. But we all need to look at the ways in which we communicate to ensure that "US" is inclusive, strong and beautiful.

There is a growing body of evidence to show that all children benefit from diversity. A recent article in nprED explains why. But adults must be vigilant about communicating high-expectations, cultural awareness, an attitude of caring and a willingness to appreciate the contributions of everyone within our "US."

While adults may be lagging, there are strong and beautiful examples of students who are willing to embrace the new "US." I think about my niece, Liney, who is in 9th grade. She joined our family in April of 2000 when she flew to Newark airport from Korea. In her 14 years, she has experienced a variety of well-meaning, highly insensitive remarks and questions. As she has gotten older, she has learned how to address them with humor and a "really?" attitude.

In spite of dealing with her own struggles for inclusion, Liney has fully embraced the new "US" and works hard to build community with everyone. She is an active member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school. She has a diverse community of friends. She ensures that classmates with disabilities are treated equally - and more importantly - as friends.

I am particularly grateful to Liney for the caring and inclusive way she has befriended my son who is on the autism spectrum. She has never used language like "he can't do that" or "he just doesn't get it" - both of which have been true at various parts of his life. Rather, she takes the time to explain, show, help and include him in all the parts of the "US" that make up our family.

It is a beautiful and strong thing, as Maya Angelou suggests. But I have come to realize that for Liney, it is not a difficult thing. Rather, it is a part of who she is and how she operates. She accepts and is kind, but more importantly, she works to include and appreciate the contributions of everyone. And her actions, as well as her language, support that mindset.

Educators (and all adults) have a lot to learn from Liney. We must be careful with our thinking, be careful with our words, understand where others are coming from, recognize and acknowledge the contributions of everyone, and understand that we all benefit from diversity. This last piece may be why we falter. Many people feel that diversity and inclusion benefit only the THEMS - the kids who receive financial aid, the students of color, the kids on the spectrum. Not so. We all must understand that diversity makes a better "US" and we must be certain to communicate that in all we say and do.

Liney hanging out with her "US."

Friday, October 23, 2015

Don't Give Up the Ship

I've had a bad week. I will not lie. Things were not going well from the outset. Generally, I am a fairly positive person, but I struggled this week with negative thoughts.

Without going into the painful details of what exactly went wrong, I can tell you that the underlying problems were, well, problems. Things not running smoothly, disruptions to the schedule, set backs in "the plan."

In my more frustrated moments, I did a lot of complaining. My message was clear: "This will never work."

This is not a sentence I utter often. For most of life, I believe in possibilities and work hard to make them realities. This historically has been easier for me, but maintaining this mindset this week has been a challenge.

I was fortunate to be exposed to some forward thinkers this week, who helped me to focus on what could be and what was working. I've taken their thoughts and put them into a handy list to help myself when I have another bout of negative thinking.

Focus on what is working. Things will always go wrong, but it is important to pay attention to the things that are going right. Not only does this help us be more positive, it helps us find solutions for the things that are going wrong. If we pay attention to what creates success, we can use those strategies when things aren't working.

Remember why you came. We took jobs in education for a reason. To have an impact, to support students, to grow professionally. The list is long. On days (or weeks) that go poorly, it helps to remember why we do what we do.

Surround yourself with good people. Nay-sayers and haters have their place in our lives, but not when we are struggling to remain positive. It is best to keep it real with people who are willing to remind you of the vision and encourage you not to quit. Be intentional about calling them, e-mailing them or walking over to their classroom.

Keep working... It is tempting to call in sick and take a break from the failure. Don't. That just prolongs the agony.

But do take intentional breaks. Going next door to chat and laugh with a colleague, walking around outside to get some vitamin D, or watching a few mindless YouTube videos can help you refocus and stay positive.

The bottom line is don't give up the ship! While there are times  when we need to know when to pull over from a project or idea, quitting prematurely never feels good. Chances are good we won't end up like James Lawrence who died aboard the USS Chesapeake in 1813. More likely, we will survive with the ship in tact and sailing towards our goals.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Being Understood

My 9th grader called me yesterday after school. "Can you pick me up?," he asked. I had not planned to, but my mommy sense told me I should say yes.

When I arrived at school he was sitting by the tennis courts doing some homework. He looked a little sad.

As parents, we want to make sure our kids our ok. As the parents of teenagers, we know better than to ask, so I waited to be told.

The conversation started with the usual topics. How was your day? What should we have for dinner? Eventually, he opted to drive with me to pick up his brother from cross country. And that is when I got the goods.

No, he was not bullied in school. No one stole his lunch money, he wasn't sick and he didn't lose his Chromebook. What happened was something that has happened to all of us - he wasn't able to explain his thinking.

It was the end of the last class of the day. Many of the kids had left early for a soccer game, so the teacher asked the students a series of questions. For each question, she called on three students to answer and then moved on to another topic.

My son's comment was heard, but he didn't feel that it was properly recognized or explored. As a result, he felt misunderstood.

I know what you are thinking - 9th graders should have thicker skins, moms need to let their children experience frustrations like these, it is not right to judge the teacher based on one exchange. All of these things are true, and yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was a little wrong.

Being understood matters. It is a basic human need that is the basis for all human relationships. Humans do all kinds of things to be understood by those around them - we talk, draw, write, blog, dance, sing, yell, and post our ideas on social media so that those around us know who we are.

Teachers have a unique ability to allow this type of self-promotion with an eye towards getting others to understand who we are. Most teachers are inherently good at it. But yesterday's experience made me wonder how educators can be more intentional creating ways for learners to be understood. In the 24 hours since yesterday's conversation, I developed a quick list:

  • allow students to elaborate on their ideas
  • provide avenues for digital collaboration with others
  • call on kids who aren't raising their hands
  • allow students to lead class discussions
  • have students explain the thinking of someone else
  • scrap the lesson in favor of a great learning experience
  • ask students to make things and then present and defend them
  • have show and tell with books or ideas
  • allow students to direct learning
This stuff isn't rocket science, but it matters and it makes a difference in all aspects of learning. When students feel understood, they are motivated and engaged. They feel valued and respected.

To me, this is an imperative. Not just for my own child, but for all the children out there who need to be understood in order to navigate life and grow into healthy and happy individuals who turn to the person next to them and seek to understand.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Vision That Drives What We Do

What guides your institution? I've given this a great deal of thought lately. Leaving one institution for another provides a special lens through which to compare and analyze. I've found myself thinking about why - Why is policy in place? Why do we value that thing? Why do we show up every day?

To be clear, I am not saying "we did it better at my old school" or "my new institution is an improvement over my old one." Rather, having been part of a school culture and being faced with the task of navigating a new one has given me the opportunity to evaluate both.

This month I've been reading Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase. I haven't made a great deal of progress with the reading, but the book has enabled me to do a great deal of thinking. One of the chapters is about vision. I read it last week, but have thought about the idea of vision on a fairly consistent basis in the days since.

Lehman and Chase make a compelling case for creating schools that are a "unified whole" where "vision drives what everyone does." We all agree, right? But the question I grappled with all week was What if this vision is faulty?

At both my old school and my new organization, a vision was visible (sorry, I couldn't resist). The driving force guiding actions was noticeable in the attitudes of the adults, the responses of the students, the internal and external discussions, the decisions made and the priorities valued. At times in both organizations, these were points of pride - things we do well or innovative practices.

However, there are always parts of a school culture that make us uncomfortable. Attitudes such as "we've always done it this way," "there is no way to make that work" or "we're so good at what we do we don't need to worry about improvement" have always been hard for me to swallow. In truth, these ideas are also part of the vision of a school - the hope that in the future we will look pretty much the same as we do today.

Here is where we need to clarify the language. Often we confuse words like practice, policy or mission with vision. While I believe these ideas must all be aligned and unified, they are not really the same thing. Our practices, policies and missions should indeed support the vision, but the vision itself is an aspiration. It is implied that we aren't quite there yet. We can see a vague shape, maybe, or have glimmers of hope for what can be, but we haven't reached it yet. Schools must also realize that practice and policy reflect the vision, so if the vision is stale, it will be obvious in the organizational structures.

The critical question becomes "How do we shape the vision?" Again, things get interesting here. Many people in the educational community will say that leaders shape vision and that is true to a certain extent. But the best leaders are those who can shape vision as a result of listening, paying attention and collaborating with the community. What is working? What is not? What are teachers and students excited about? What systems and structures do we need in place to maximize engagement and learning? What do we value too much or too little?

Making time for these discussions is imperative. Without it, institutions are doomed to focus on policy and practice that are disconnected from the vision, or worse, reflective of poor vision. Supporting innovation and risk taking is also essential. We can't envision the future of schools if we aren't willing to try new things.

Are we there yet? I'd like to think that some schools are. Certainly, some organizations are close to embracing a vision that drives all they do - one that is void of egos and agendas, but inspires every member of the institution to strive for something bigger. I've been fortunate to be close to this goal in both my new and previous organization and be able to arrive at work with a shared mindset of "how can we make what we do today matter tomorrow?" - and that is a really great feeling.

If you think about it, "the future" is a place at which we can never really arrive. It will always be elusive and unknowable and, as a result, a little bit scary. But vision is all about the future and vision is less elusive and more knowable. We may not know exactly how to get there, but schools must have a THERE to get. It must be a THERE that takes into account the fact that people and ideas matter. A THERE that embraces innovation and change. A THERE that is authentic and collaborative. A vision that drives all that we do.

Friday, October 2, 2015

An Indelible Mark

My sister died this summer. It was unexpected and awful. She was funny, generous, thoughtful and warm. It was impossible to be around her and not laugh.

Amy was older than me by five years and so, naturally, I worshipped her. Years ago, she had a pair of purple shoes (it was the 80s!) that I coveted. My feet were smaller than hers at the time because I was only 10. She said that she'd give them to me when my feet were big enough.

Besides the shoes, Amy had many gifts that I admired - as a 10 year old, throughout my teens and later as an adult. She knew how to mark an occasion. She threw great parties, paying careful attention to every detail. She remembered milestones.

But it wasn't just the celebratory moments that Amy acknowledged. She knew the importance of marking the more difficult moments in life as well. When my oldest son was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, Amy sent him balloons. His delight was infectious and he played with them for days until they fell limply to the floor. The balloons - and her act of sending them - did more to chip away at my fear and grief that you can imagine.

If I needed a laugh, a shoulder to cry on, someone with whom to be snide, Amy was there.

We had moments of conflict, too - no relationship is without those. But because of my history of hero worship, it was hard for me to stay angry with her.

While Amy was never "a teacher" she educated many people about many different things. She had an ability to help people see the world with an open mind and be willing to try new things. She enjoyed experiencing new things and was usually up for adventure. Amy talked me into parasailing, reading cool books, and going new places. As a teacher myself, I grew to appreciate and adopt her persuasive strategy of "come on - try it! It will be fun!"

One of the things that Amy was never able to talk me into was getting a tattoo. About three years ago we were at our annual winter family gathering. The weather was crummy and there wasn't much to do at the house we had rented.

"Let's go get matching tattoos!," she said. "Hell no," I replied.

In August, a month after Amy died, I finally got the tattoo. It is just her name, in her handwriting, on my foot. After all was said and done, I felt shabby that I had dismissed Amy's suggestion so quickly. It didn't really hurt all that much and I don't look like I am in a biker gang. In hindsight, I should have said "hell yes."

I love the way the tattoo looks on my foot. I love seeing her handwriting every time I look down. I like feeling as though we still walk together. Mostly, I love that I have an indelible mark on my foot that is a visible sign of the indelible mark she left on my heart.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Why I Love School Sports: Confessions of Non-Sporty Teacher

Yesterday, I went to not one but two school sporting events. The first was a soccer game at my son's small independent school. The Hill Top Hawks were playing the Stratford Friends Phoenix. The Phoenix were victorious, but it was a beautiful day for a game.

From there, we drove to the STHS Stadium where the Spartans played the Trojans in an epic (and very long) football game. Again, a beautiful evening to be outside and the band sounded great.

If you know me at all, you know that I am not sporty. Sure, I attempt to play tennis and street hockey with my kids, but I really don't have the patience to watch others play. While I have dutifully sat through many sporting events out of love, I have rarely paid much attention to the game. In fact, the only reason I knew the Spartans were winning last night was because the pep band played On Wisconsin each time they scored - and I heard that song many times last night.

Not paying attention to the game has enabled me to appreciate the extensive benefits for school sports. It took me a while to realize these benefits. I used to bring a book. But once I stopped reading, I started watching. And that is when I noticed all the amazing things that go on while the team is on the field.

  • Working toward a common goal. When you attend a game,  you typically hope someone will win. This unites the spectators and the team. This is a good lesson for non-school organizations and families. Work together. Cheer each-other on. High-five 'em when they win and pat 'em on the back if they lose. Either way, we are a team.
  • Pride. Watching the parents is the best. Sure, there are some out there who take the games too seriously, but most of them are just proud of their kids. I sat next to a mom at the soccer game who "talked" to her son on the field for the entire game. "You can do it, Ben. Pay attention, Ben." She was proud of his every move - the good ones and the not so good ones. "You should have seen him when he first started," she beamed.
  • Learning from defeat and success. I am a sucker for the underdog and so it always kills me that someone loses. Still, learning how to lose is important and so is learning how to win graciously. When they line up, shake hands and really mean it, it shows that they are learning these skills.
  • Opportunity. Sure, most coaches are going to play their best players. But not always. Sometimes you get to bear witness to someone's first goal, assist, save or great play. Wow.
  • Life happening. When you watch school sports, you are right up close. You hear the coaches and players. You see the cheerleaders get tired and hear the band's flat notes. It is real life happening - and it is beautiful. At last night's game, one of the coaches had his son on the sidelines with him. I know his son from the Challenger League. He might be the most reluctant baseball player ever and will frequently wander off the base. But he seemed to like football more. He drank lots of Gatorade and chatted with his dad. He wandered off a little, too, and the dad would leave the sidelines to go find him. Real life happening.
  • School Spirit. The Beach Boys encouraged us all to Be True to Our School. At both games yesterday, there was some serious school spirit. From the pep band to the cheerleaders to the kids in the stands to the parents biting their nails - everyone was hoping, wishing and cheering for their school. As a teacher, this delights me.
School is so important - and easy for me to love. But adding sports - a thing that so many people love - adds to the depth of the school experience. By playing and watching the game, selling hot dogs, playing in the pep band, waving a banner, drinking the team's Gatorade, we are creating and sustaining community. And that, my sporty and non-sporty friends, is what school is all about.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What is Reflection? 4 Questions to Guide Your Thinking

Today is the last day of summer. I know, summer really ended earlier this month when school opened. Back to waking up early, packing lunches, checking homework, talking to teachers, waiting at the bus stop, band practice, cross country, new adventures, old friends and different expectations.

We have spent the last three weekends starting or resuming all these back to school habits. If we are lucky, we made some goals and are trying to meet them. But how much time in the last three weeks have we reflected on our new experiences with students, colleagues, bus schedules and adventures? It is an interesting question.

I am a mindfulness class drop-out. OK, I didn't actually drop out and the instructor was far too positive and hopeful to kick anyone out of the class. However, I really struggled with the practice of mindfulness.

"Pay attention to your breathing" were the basic directions. "Notice what you are feeling in your body." "Just be." Instead, I planned tomorrow's lesson and made mental grocery lists. I struggled to not giggle while we practice "mindful walking."

Even though I was not able to practice mindfulness, I have become mindful or reflective. I still can't really pay attention to my breathing without getting distracted. But what I have learned is to pay attention to how I feel and reflect upon why I am feeling that way.

Here is an example: As a teacher, I am totally ok with the idea of failure. If the lesson was a flop or everyone failed the test, I am able to quickly say to myself, "what can I do differently next time?" I am comfortable enough with my skills and our community of trust to notice what went wrong, why it did and what I can do differently next time.

The same was true for when things go well. I am able to notice what went right and what made that event/lesson/encounter successful. From there, I can ponder how to replicate this success in another setting or for another purpose.

Consequently, these basic questions have become my mindful or reflective practice:
  • What happened just now?
  • How did that go?
  • What made it good/bad? Successful/not? Pleasant/Unpleasant? Productive/A waste of time? Fun/Boring? Engaging/passive? 
  • What can I do next time to improve the outcome? (even if it was good)
It is easy to get wrapped up in the new and sometimes overwhelming challenges of the 2015-2016 school. After all, we are so busy and deadlines loom. But it is essential to make time to ponder these questions. Sometimes over a cup of coffee early in the morning, sometimes with a trusted colleague or mentor, sometimes while sitting in traffic or waiting in the car for band practice to be over.

I may never be able to pay attention to my breathing. But by focusing on these reflective questions, I can figure out what is going on and how to best move forward.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Organizational Learning

Students share their Chromebook experiences

Last Spring, my 8th grade son presented to the school board with a group of teachers about their Chromebook experiences. The district had piloted a 1:1 Chromebook program for 8th & 9th grade. I attended the meeting because I was proud of my kid, but also, I was proud of the teachers.

Not to harp too much about Chromebooks, but they are really great. They support engagement, organization, research, effective use of time, efficiency, best-practices, etc., etc., etc. In short, Chromebooks support learning.

So much of my career has been focused on individual learning - for myself or for students. In recent years as an administrator, I have thought more and more about organizational learning. This is a bigger and stickier ball of wax.

I found a paper on Scribd (a new fun tool for me) about Individual Learning. Read it, it was fun. The part that was the most compelling for me was about the differences and the connections between individual and organizational learning.

All of us are "islands of knowledge," which is great to a certain extent. But connecting those islands and embedding new learning into organizational patterns is the challenge.

How can we accomplish broader organizational learning? How can schools have structures in place that encourage adaptive behaviors for all learners (adults and students alike)? How can we create challenging, shared goals? How can we sustain a culture of continual evaluation and refinement of our structures and practices?

These questions will plague me all weekend (and for years to come, no doubt). But for now, I'll hold up as a fine example of organizational learning that team of teachers and students who presented to the school board last April. Their islands of knowledge were not only connected, but in sync and continuously communicating their needs, ideas, set-backs and successes.

Part of their success, I think, was ownership. Those teachers and students were given tools and guidelines and asked to create a "program." They were encouraged to experiment and try new things - the outcomes of which were innovative and effective models for teaching and learning. They became enthusiastic experts who were able to share their passions with others. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the excitement on the faces of the listeners - how cool is that? Those pilot teachers and students led the change - and got others to connect their islands with the massive continent-sized group of thinkers that they had become.

Organizational learning at its finest, I think.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Idea Explosion!

Last week, I suffered from insecurity and doubt. Trust me, it is not a fun place to dwell. I kept reminding myself that change is uncomfortable. But also, I reminded myself that I LIKE change.

Part of my identity as an educator is someone who works for change. I am reluctant to use the phrase "change agent" here, because while I work for and support change, I don't have a lot of success creating change on a scale bigger than my own realm.

That said, my realm just got a whole lot bigger. Once, I was responsible for working for change in my classroom. Now, I can work for change with a larger group of peers - educators like me who work for change in their own realms. The thing is, if you think about all the realms that we collectively touch, that's a whole lot of change.

I spent the week allowing this idea to sink in. The deeper it sank, the more I liked it. "What if we.." kept creeping into my thinking. I jotted all my "what if wes" down on Post-It notes or in e-mails to colleagues. My desk and head are cluttered with them (see the picture below) and all of a sudden, I was able to make a plan.

This plan encompassed procedural changes, website changes, changes in approach, changes in focus - all of which I jammed into a nerdy proposal for my boss to check out on Monday. Man, that was fun!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Change is Uncomfortable

The first pangs of discomfort came as a result of sitting. The old me - teacher/mom/summer school director - rarely had time to sit. Sometimes my feet would hurt, so I'd take a few minutes to sit down with a kid or on the playground, but mostly, I stood.

The new me - director of professional development - sat a lot this week. It was an uncomfortable shift. I don't know if every week will require as much sitting, but it was the change in sitting habits that I think was the most noticeable and the most uncomfortable.

There are other changes that I am finding uncomfortable. My office is really quiet. Again, the teacher/mom/summer school director me is unused to this level of calm. I think more about big ideas and less about what will we do in the now to make our learning productive and meaningful. I have a lot to learn. Sure, teacher/mom/summer school director was always learning, but this level of learning feels extreme - so much information, so quickly, with little room for error. Uncomfortable.

If you think about the things that can cause us to be uncomfortable, they are generally mild - an itchy sweater or a room that is the wrong temperature. In these situations, we just put on a different sweater or adjust the thermostat. Other uncomfortable things reap pretty good benefits - yoga comes to mind. Those poses are not at all comfortable and yet we feel so great after doing them.

Even so, it is funny to have to live my own advice. I tell my own kids (and I used to tell my students) all the time "change feels weird. It's uncomfortable. You're going to be ok."

As teacher/mom/summer school director, I felt a certain level of competence in what I did each day. If I wasn't terribly prepared, it was often no big deal because I was competent enough to wing it. I knew my tools and how to utilize them to maximize results. As director of professional development, my tools are new and unfamiliar. Some of my old tools work, but not in the same ways. It feels really uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I had a call from another director of professional development who was also a former middle school teacher. Unsolicited, he offered me some advice. "You will always miss the kids," he said. (How did he know that I had just been thinking about them?) "But what you will find is that you will still have an impact, only in a really different way. You will help teachers connect and feel ready, which will ultimately help the kids. You will learn to appreciate them more, perhaps, because working with adults can sometimes be more challenging, but you will grow to love what you do and feel really good at it."

The teacher/mom/summer school director was so proud of this colleague for offering wisdom and support to a learner. And the director of professional development felt a little less uncomfortable.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Learning From an Icky Summer

I'll be honest, my summer was icky. Without going into the specifics, I can safely say this was the worst summer of my life. I wish I were exaggerating, but I am not.

Typically, I read fiction all summer, but this year I never connected with any of the books I tried. I turned instead to professional reading and I read quite a lot. Books, blogs, articles - all of these helped my inner nerdy teacher to heal and feel productive.

As I read, I kept a list of the basics of what I had learned on the back of an old receipt. It served as a bookmark and a way to record my thinking and learning - haphazard, perhaps, but effective. As I read and jotted, I was able to reflect and synthesize. Here are some of the things I learned:

Don't be isolated. As teachers, we like to close our door and do our thing. When things go wrong in life, we like to close the door and be alone. This is the wrong approach. I spent some time with colleagues this summer - at a TEDx event, showing up at summer school every day, engaging in Twitter chats, and talking over coffee. Listening and being together helped me to learn a lot. I spent time with family and friends - at the pool, neighborhood parties, even in hospital rooms and at funerals. Being with the people I love enabled me to smile, laugh, cry, laugh and learn. And it felt so great, even when it was awful.

Adapt and be flexible. If life were easy, we could always predict outcomes. Life is not predictable, so we need to be ready to change our thinking, our approach, our minds, our jobs and our plans. It isn't easy, but it is necessary to happiness, survival and success.

Be brave. Adaptation and flexibility require courage. Courage is rarely fun, but is almost always necessary. This summer, I drove in Manhattan during rush hour and got a tattoo. Having never done either, I was afraid at both events. But the result of both experiences was incredible. And worth the fear. Just imagine the possibilities.

Create value. Schools are just learning the importance of this idea. Because my summer was so bad, I had trouble focusing on the normal things. Instead, I found myself wondering "what is that person opposite me thinking?" This helped me to realize that often they were seeking some value added in the exchange. Which made me wonder how I could add value to the interaction. How powerful an idea is that?

Recognize the priorities of others. I live with an avid swimmer and a passionate tennis player. Their priorities are different from mine, but as their mom, I worked to fit their agendas into our days. This enabled me to experience the joy of swimming during a rain storm and playing tennis at some of the best courts in the area. Not only that, I was able to have support for my priorities when I really needed it. The balance we were able to maintain allowed all of us to pursue our passions.

Ask "What if?" I should have put this first on the list, because asking this question allowed all the other things to happen. It allowed me to find solutions that I had not considered before. Asking this allowed me to be flexible, to dream big, to learn from the expertise of others, to re-imagine life and to - as my kids would say - go big, or go home. When you are staring down the abyss, it is easy to ask "why me?" or "what the heck?" But asking "what if" allows for possibility, growth and opportunity.

In a small way, asking "What if" helped me to redeem the ickiness of this summer. It also led me to a new professional opportunity about which I am very excited. It allowed me to take risks, exchange ideas, to be dissatisfied a little. Ickiness is never fun. But it is always enlightening.

Reading, reflecting, learning..

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Standing Ovation for Second Place

Like many others in America, I had a Wimbledon breakfast. I will be honest and say that I only did this for my kids. I am not much of a tennis fan and for most of this morning's match between Serena Williams and Garbine Muguruza, I was reading the paper and listening with half an ear.

As a mom of two boys, I watch a great deal of sports. As a non-sporty person, I find most of the games boring. This morning, I started paying attention only when the match was over. For me, that was when the drama started.

Garbine Muguruza played well - my kids said so and she must have to make it to the final round. But as you know, she did not "win."

Tennis is a more civilized sport than some of the others I have watched with my kids. Often in a final game of a season, a team wins and celebrates and a team loses and mourns. Today was different.

The game ended and everyone waited. A ceremony began. Garbine Muguruza was given an award for second place. Everyone stood up and clapped. Everyone. It went on for several minutes.

How many times have you come in second? Or your students? More often than not, right?

But how many times do we give a standing ovation for coming in second? Not as often as we should, I think.

The truth is, humans come in second (or third or tenth) more often than we win. We know that we learn more from losing than we do from winning. So why not celebrate the loss?

Having come in second (or fourth or twelfth) for most of my life, I can sort of imagine how Garbine Muguruza might feel. But I was impressed with the grace with which she came in second. And even more impressed with the audience at Wimbledon who recognized her effort, skill and determination today.

As educators, our takeaway is obvious. Celebrate effort. Learn from mistakes. And stand up and clap til it hurts when people do the remarkable.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Teachers Unite - at the pool!

Today was an awesome day. In spite of the gross and muggy weather, teachers and students worked hard to make things happen at summer school. Walking around, I bore witness to meaningful lessons and productive interactions. It was great.

After school, I was fortunate to go to my pool. Swimming after summer school is such a treat. I can cool off and reflect on the day as I count my laps of play pool soccer with my kids.

Following today's swim, I made the decision to sit in the shade with some teacher friends of mine. While we have never worked together in a school, we share a great deal in common. Some of my group are retired. Some work in public schools and others independent. Even so, our similarities far outweigh any differences that may exist. All of us are committed to helping students learn and improve our craft.

In some ways, it is the best PD around - not just because of the Vitamin D or the water - but because of the discussion. It centers on positive change and humor. We talk about things that matter. We talk about how to capitalize on strengths and look for support with our weaknesses. There is no agenda. We let the discussion evolve.

At the pool, there is always a smell of chlorine and sun screen in the air. When my teacher/swimmer friends get together, what you smell is possibility.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Learning By Doing

I have spent the last two weeks dwelling in lofty ideas. I attended a TEDx event, read educational books and blogs, had lively conversations about ideas with teacher friends and debriefed with my own children about their academic year. It was great! Relaxing, engaging and really fun.

Tomorrow, I have to go to work. Not the "lofty idea" type of work, either. The "all day, it is really hot, helping kids be successful and supporting other teachers" type of work that is Summer Spark. This is my second year running Summer Spark. I learned a great deal and had a wonderful time last summer. Reflecting on last summer's successes and challenges has been a fun endeavor which was heavily peppered with lofty ideas.

Lofty ideas typically inspire change, and so some of the things we did last summer needed to be altered or removed and replaced with something new. This, of course, meant work - evaluating last year, synthesizing new ideas, adapting them to meet our needs. It was time consuming, but fun - the kind of thinking that is rewarding and challenging at the same time.  The kind of thinking that starts with "what if."

Thinking and implementing are different, however. Some of the new ideas were easy to adopt. Others, too expensive. Tackling the road blocks was frustrating at times, but still a "lofty idea" kind of project.

Tomorrow, however, those lofty ideas have to make room for real, live people. For kids who will show up excited and ready or glum and tired - mostly likely a little of each. For parents who might have anxiety about leaving their kids with us all day and need a little extra support and time. For teachers who have to get used to new students and new surroundings. For bus drivers who might show up early or late.

Throughout the drama and excitement that tomorrow (not to mention the next five weeks) will offer, I will hold on to my lofty ideas. The difference is, I will be learning by doing. The interactions with students, parents and teachers, the phone calls and emails, the field trips, the snack buying, the recess monitoring and all the other active tasks I will perform will be different from the last two weeks of thinking leisurely. But if I can hold on to my lofty ideas and allow them to inform my actions, I have the opportunity to learn even more. By doing, I will discover what works, what doesn't, who needs what, how I can best support them and what I can do to make the summer fun, safe, engaging and purposeful for others. Plus, with some luck and intentional planning, I can continue to engage in lofty ideas with teachers, bus drivers, parents and mostly with students.

I think it is going to be a great summer. After all, the best way to learn anything is by doing.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Adapt, Migrate or Perish

I had a biology teacher in high school named Ms. Zak. She was tall, strict and austere. I remember being a little afraid of her. If she disapproved of what you said, she would say, "Oh, really?" in a way the conveyed disbelief not only in the answer, but in the thinking behind it.

She knew how to keep a class in line, but she also knew her stuff. I learned a lot from Ms. Zak, most of which I still remember (although, I never was able to locate the heart in the crayfish dissection. "Maybe it didn't have one," I said to Ms. Zak. "Oh, really?," she replied.)

Ms. Zak had a large sign on her wall above the chalkboard that said ADP. And she would often remind us that ADP applied not only in nature, but in her classroom. Adapt. Migrate. Perish. She would point it out in nature all the time. If a student was unprepared for class, she would point to the sign and say, "You must adapt to our guidelines, migrate out of this class or you shall perish."

In the end, most of us in the class chose adaptation over migration (she was the only biology teacher after all) and the very idea of perishing was beyond the comprehension of most of us (what would our parents say?).

Adaptation, it turns out, was pretty fun. Once we adapted to the norms of Ms. Zak's class, we learned a great deal and had a lot of fun. In fact, I looked up Ms. Zak on and she gets some pretty stellar reviews (although there are clearly some reviews by students who chose not to adapt).

I have been thinking a great deal about adaptation lately. Education is at a critical juncture and must adapt to our changing world. This is not a terribly bold statement, it is more of a fact. A recent Edutopia blog post by Matt Levinson provides a concise and clear explanation of why.

Some schools are boldly embracing the idea of adaption and actively seeking ways to address the changes in our culture, the pace of information and the evolving learner. This is a hard thing to do. It requires critical self-evaluation and a willingness to be vulnerable. There are risks involved in adaptation. What if the new approach fails?

But I believe that the risks are greater for those who do not adapt. Ms. Zak knew it 25 years ago. If we are unwilling to adapt, the alternatives are grim. Students could migrate to other schools and our institutions as we know them could perish.

The lesson from Ms. Zak (and many others) is that adaptation can be fun. There is excitement and possibility embedded in adaptation. When learning evolves in new and innovative ways, the outcome is amazing. After all, "it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change." - Charles Darwin via Ms. Zak.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Making Time for Reflection

The last two months of school have been grueling. There were assessments to be finished, activities to be planned, trips to be taken, graduations to be rehearsed and meetings to be attended. On top of that, there were unexpected crises to be managed - like when the bus driver got lost on the way home from our trip or when the computer we needed for that one project crashed.

Another factor in all the mayhem were all the good-byes. Watching all my students graduate or leave is always hard. This year, I had to add our Head of School (who is also a very dear friend) to the list of "graduates." Both of my children graduated this year and are transitioning to new schools, which means saying good by to all of the teachers, bus drivers, administrators and secretaries we love.

All of the excitement and change happened in the blink of an eye. It seems like just last week we were returning from Spring Break and now, all of a sudden, it is over. How does that happen?

These last two days, I've had some time to reflect on the past two months, both at a TEDx Event at the George School and also at my pool. But in the moments listed above, I rarely found time and space to reflect on the change, the problems, the solutions, the feelings or the thinking - unless I was stuck in traffic. How does that happen?

Reflection matters and I have been thinking about it a great deal lately. This spring I have been reading #EdJourney by Grant Lichtman. This brilliant and engaging book has opened my eyes to a host of things that should matter in education, helped me to rethink and re-imagine some of my priorities and affirmed much of my thinking as an educator. (I promise to blog more about it as the summer wears on).

Lichtman's book itself IS a reflection of his journey to schools across the country and the idea of reflection comes up all over the book. He even devotes an entire chapter to the idea. In it, we learn about the importance of reflection and the impact it has on creativity, empathy, curiosity, student engagement, mental health and even design. Lichtman shows how some schools make time for reflection, but clearly indicates that this is a growth opportunity for schools and a way to add value to the organization on the whole (pg 167).

At the TEDx event yesterday, several students presented. Among them were two who reflected on the lessons learned in their high school careers. On student said he had learned about trust, humility and passion. It was clear as he spoke that he had internalized these ideals and would be able to access them throughout his entire life. Another student spoke of adoption the "nomadic mindset" wherein we learn to be resilient in the face of instability and show compassion toward others. Clearly, these students had reflected on their learning in deep and meaningful ways.

How can we achieve this same level of reflection for all students? As humans, we seek to create meaning, but as teachers we often don't allow the time or opportunity to create meaning for ourselves or for our students. There are ways and if schools are to be relevant in our ever-changing world, we need to identify them, utilize them, and share them with others, so that all students (and teachers) can have the time and opportunity to reflect and grow.

What if:

  • all students blogged to help them think about their thinking and learning? Blogging gives voice and helps to synthesize ideas. Instead of it being a project, shouldn't it be practice?
  • students had more opportunities to tell groups of people what is important? At yesterday's TEDx event and last week at 8th grade graduation, students had the chance to stand up and state what was important to them. The depth of their thinking, the moments and ideas they shared that were meaningful for them and the clarity in their communication was amazing - not just for the audience, but for the speakers themselves.
  • students and teachers had longer breaks in the day to go outside, talk, think and be?
  • we allowed students to doodle while they learned and create visual representations of what they are thinking?
  • we allowed students to guide discussions consistently?
Having spent the last two months with few opportunities to reflect upon the many things I was learning, experiences I was having and the ideas that were percolating in my head was a poor choice on my part. It sent a message to myself and my students that if you have time in the car or the grocery store line to reflect and think, you've done just fine. Spending the last two days with little to do besides reflect highlights for me the importance of creating time, developing the skills and communicating the importance of reflection - both in the classrooms and on an institutional level.

It comes down to sustainability and relevance. In order for learners (those who are students and the adults charged to guide them) to keep up with the rapid pace of information and change, we must be able to create meaning for ourselves. In the creation of meaning, we are sustaining our selves and the institutions we represent - ensuring that as individuals and organizations we can continue to move forward. Likewise, as reflectors of ideas and experiences, we develop the skills to remain relevant as the ideas and experiences change.

How will you make time for reflection? 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Redemption is Messy

"We forward this generation triumphantly"

Bob Marley wrote many of my favorite songs. At the top of the list is Redemption Song. I learned to love it on a hilarious vacation I spent with my family a few summers ago. There was a fellow staying a few houses away from ours who exuberantly embraced all the beach had to offer - paddle boarding, kite flying and wooing women. After each day's endeavor, he sat on the porch and played the bongos while singing. Hence his nickname, Bongo Boy.

Bongo Boy wasn't a particularly skilled kite flier or paddle boarder, nor was he a great musician. In fact, he mumbled his way through Redemption Song without really knowing the words.

Still, his enthusiasm was impressive and his zest for living unparalleled. He fell off the paddle board often and most of the women said no. He didn't even know the words to the song he loved so much, but he sang it anyway.

Even so, I think Bongo Boy moved forward his generation triumphantly.

I have a Bongo Boy in class this year. He is messy. He tries new things with enthusiasm and falls down a lot. It would be easy to be annoyed with a student like this, but I find myself rather charmed by Bongo Boy II.

Today, Bongo Boy II had to take a standardized assessment. We had tried yesterday, but things had gone poorly. Today's attempt began in a rocky and unpromising fashion. An eye injury that happened last night necessitated the creation of a makeshift eye patch. The patch was uncomfortable, so it came off. Somewhere along the way, my coffee was spilled.

When Bongo Boy II was ready to start, he talked his way through the whole assessment. He whispered about the passages, the vocabulary and the questions."Hey, I'm reading a sonnet by Shakespeare. Have you read it?" or "Have you ever heard of a poet called William Wordsworth?"

I was annoyed by the noise, but delighted by his enthusiasm. In the end, Bongo Boy II showed a delightful increase in his score. We were both pleased.

Redemption is messy. And loud. It involves homemade eye patches, endless questions and many attempts. It requires that we "emancipate ourselves from mental slavery" and get the job done. In the end, it will "forward the generation triumphantly" and it is always, always worth it.

Won't you help me sing?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"This will take forever.."

I went to a little league baseball game today. In some ways, it was exactly what you are imagining. The sun shone, the players had on matching shirts and the dads were encouraging everyone to "keep your eye on the ball." Except this game was different. This game was a scrimmage for kids who can't play regular little league. Maybe they aren't coordinated enough, maybe they are too shy, maybe they just don't feel like it. These players range in age, size and ability. It doesn't really matter, though, because they all belong.

They cheer, encourage, high-five, heckle and laugh with one another. There is a fair amount of teasing- but not the kind that hurts anyone's feeling. Opportunities are given to try again and no one feels like a loser.

As a non-athletic person and the mom of one of the players, I delight in this model. While my kid is one of the better hitters in the group, I know that he could never play on a more traditional baseball team. He giggles too much in the outfield. In fact, all of the players have athletic or attentional deficits that would make a more traditional team really unpleasant for them.

The advantage that these players have, though, is their determination. It is palpable and, on some days, almost too beautiful to watch.

Today's game included all of the usual amusements - the kid for forgets to run to third and just comes straight home from second base, for example. But today was a little more inspiring. Today, a kid named Nick stayed at the plate for a really long time. Nick was determined to get a hit. It took a while.

The pitcher was patient and kept throwing balls that were hit-able. The dads all gave their advice "choke up, a little" or "swing now." But Nick still struggled.

After about 15 strikes, he mumbled, "this will take forever."

At first, I thought this meant he had lost hope and was giving up. Nope. It really was just a statement, I think, that we should all just shut up and get comfortable. He didn't need our advice and I'm not sure he even needed our encouragement at that moment. He needed a hit. And he was willing to be patient.

Determination like this is rare. Most of us set goals and feel bad about ourselves if we take longer than we think it should to attain them. Not Nick. He wanted a hit and he was willing to put in the effort to get one. Set-backs did not deter him. Advice and encouragement from others did not speed him up.

After about ten more pitches, Nick got his hit. It wasn't awesome, but it sure felt that way to all of us in the stands. I wondered how it felt to Nick. I wanted to ask him after the game, but I don't really know him. Plus, I was so moved by his graceful determination that I was crying by then.

The phrase "this will take forever" means something different to me now. In the past, it meant "I'm giving up. Why bother."

Today, Nick showed me it means "I will get there, even if it takes all day. Your time-tables don't matter. The number of times I fail don't matter, either. I'm staying here until I reach my goal. Even if that takes forever."

Monday, April 20, 2015

Toward Something

Opportunity comes from the word opportune, a Middle English word from the Latin opportunus. Miss Campbell, my Latin teacher of many years, would be proud that I remembered that much, but ashamed that I had to look up the rest, that ob- means toward and -port means harbor. In a way, I see where the Romans were going with idea, that opportunity can be interpreted as a chance at safety. However, I think the toward part should be emphasized over the harbor. Harbors are nice, and all, and there can be lots going on in them, but they don't offer the non-seafaring folk much in the way of opportunity.

For me, it is the toward part that matters. When I think about the encounters I have had with opportunity, there is typically motion towards something. Put more simply, if you just sit around, you don't get much opportunity.

All of us should be moving toward something. However, this is only part of the opportunity equation. We also need, I think, some other factor(s) to be in our favor. Bruce Lee once said "to hell with circumstances; I create opportunity." Bruce Lee could probably pull this off without too much effort, but the non-martial artists among us might need a little more coaching.

I've been thinking about opportunity lately, mostly asking questions like "Do I create enough opportunity for others?," "Where can I find some for myself?," "How can I recognize (or help students to recognize) a worthwhile opportunity?" and "How can we re-frame set-backs into opportunity?" 

As I am not Bruce Lee, I can assure you that I don't have all of the answers. But I have made some observations about opportunity and what I believe we should be moving towards:
  • Learning - Part of moving towards something is moving away from that which makes us comfortable. The outcome of that is typically learning. When we learn new things and develop new skills, we are making opportunity possible. 
  • Engaging with others - This allows us to meet people who could potentially offer us opportunities or point us in the direction of opportunity, but it also allows us to gain new perspectives and ideas.
  • Saying yes - Sometimes, the opportunity comes disguised as a favor you can do for someone else. Saying yes (when it is feasible and practical, not just willy-nilly) can create opportunities that aren't on our radar.
  • Showing up - 80% of success is showing up, right?
  • Being patient - This is not the same as believing "good things come to those who wait," which implies that sitting around is really ok. Instead, we need to be patient and give our efforts time. This is hard, but usually worth it. Few great things happen over night.
  • Working hard - You think Bruce Lee didn't?
Here is where I could quote for you some famous opportunity stories that you have probably heard already. Instead, I'll tell you about my 8th grade son, Charlie. Last summer, he decided that he wanted to learn to play tennis. A naturally shy kid, he refused to sign up for any classes (too much interaction), but relied on practice and YouTube to develop his skills. Oh, and he asked his family to play with him often. We played all last summer and well into the fall. We wilted in the blazing sun and played while wearing gloves well into the fall. It took a lot of courage for him to sign up for the team this spring, but he did. We still practice a great deal. Sometimes after the coach has dismissed them for the day, he will persuade his brother and me to practice some more. 

Today was one such afternoon. We drove over to the courts and noticed three 9th graders playing. They needed a extra player. "Charlie, will you join us?"

My shy kid joined in. He had learned a lot, he showed up, he worked hard, he was patient, he engaged with others and he said yes. Is he the next Roger Federer? No. But did he get an opportunity today? YES! And, like Bruce Lee, it was one he created himself.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Crossing Paths with "Idea People"

I love a good idea. One that really makes you think, wonder, plan and try.

In the summer or on break, I find that my own ideas are abundant. My brain has time to reflect and ruminate. "What if we tried this?" "I wonder what would happen if we...?" "Oh, wouldn't it be cool if we..."

This time of year, things are a little more hectic. As much as I need a new idea for one thing or another, my brain space is occupied with minutiae - the 8th grade trip, getting ready for graduation, a conference with someone's parents, did I unplug the iron?. Not really the stuff of inspiration, I assure you.

This makes it difficult to wind out the school year on a strong footing. This time of year more than ever, students need new and innovative challenges to keep their minds from wandering to summer plans or other things teachers don't want to even contemplate.

The dilemma is clear - the adults are running out of steam and inspiration just when the students need the most careful planing and clear purpose. How can we all manage?

In walks Bob. Bob runs the EdTech firm that provides tech support and integration to my school. He has provided our school with a wonderful staff whom I frequently rely upon for help and ideas. But Bob is different. He's been in almost every independent school and he has seen it all. This alone makes him a fantastic resource.

On top of his years of exposure and experience, Bob likes to share. I have learned that all you need to do to get an idea from Bob is say hello, sit down and listen. He's an Idea Person and I assure you that talking to him will be worth your time. Yesterday alone, I walked away with three brilliant ideas that I can use this coming month to make our classroom more engaging and meaningful.

Being intentional about crossing paths with Idea People is important. Consider the following:

  • Who are your Idea People? Are they on Twitter? In your building?
  • How often do you seek them out? 
  • Are you willing to be experimental with their ideas and try them out for yourself? It isn't enough to just say "Wow. Cool idea. I wish that would work for my students."
The last question to consider is an important one. Are you an Idea Person for others? It is easy to feel self-conscious about our own ideas. I get that. In spades. However, what seems like everyday practice to you, might seem inspiring to another teacher. It is important to share what you do in your classroom - your successes, your set-backs, your ideas that you couldn't quite implement - with others. Not only will this make you an excellent resource for others, but it will help others become willing to share ideas with you.

When we all become Idea People who make it a point to cross paths on a regular basis, everyone wins. Teachers are better armed with purposeful and worthwhile activities for their students. Students are more engaged and challenged. And we can all feel a little more on-target and effective during this last, most difficult stretch of the school year.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

#sfsreads: Twitter in the Middle School Literacy Classroom

A year or so ago, I had the idea that I wanted to use Twitter for my classes. It was just an idea and I really wasn't sure where to go with it. My goals were simple: I wanted to build engagement and community.

I tried some different things. First, we tweeted for pretend. It was a good way to get our feet wet. We used tools like Twister to make Twitter handles for characters in a book we were reading and Tweeted as if we were them. It was fun, different and engaging.

Finally, we all made our own Twitter handles and started in earnest. We chose a hashtag and started Tweeting questions and responses to each other. At the time, we were reading a great book called Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar. We found him on Twitter and told him about our book discussion. He stopped by a few times and added a lot to our discussion, much to the delight of the students and their nerdy teacher.

As the school year wore on and summer approached, I wanted to keep the momentum going. We invited the whole school to join in our discussions via Twitter. We choose to Tweet with #sfsreads - poignant because my school, Stratford Friends School, is a school for children with reading challenges.

And so, we read. Big kids, smaller kids, teachers, even some moms. Some were better than others, some were more "into" the project. Some asked questions, some gave updates and some shared pictures. It was a gratifying experience for many. In thinking about the benefits to this endeavor, a few things stand out:

Engagement was my goal, and it was certainly achieved. For some students more than others, perhaps, but it was there. They connected with their learning in ways they had not before. One student added pictures of what things in the book Hatchet might have looked like - the hatchet, the plane - evidence that the book had drawn him in. As a result, anyone who read his Tweet was more engaged as well.

Social connectedness matters in our modern world. The back and forth exchange of ideas and lively discussion not only solidified comprehension, but forged relationships. Students and teachers felt part of a community - not just of learners, but of people with similar interests.

Continuous feedback is a good thing to have. In the classroom, we can usually achieve this, but once students leave for the day or the summer, it is harder to provide. The beauty of Tweeting while reading is that it can provide feedback at any time from any place - and not simply from the teacher. Students can provide feedback to each others - which is more meaningful and valuable. 

Space is created to allow student voice to be heard as they make contributions to meaningful discussion and open exchanges of ideas. They are able to feel valued and build confidence, standing up for what they believe in and genuinely listening to the the contributions of others.

Motivation. When I "assign" Twitter for homework, it is always done and always done well. Students crave the outlet of expressing their views and learning from others and so they always, always put their best thinking into the work. Excitement is built - and really good things happen as a result. 

Skill building may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Twitter in the classroom, but the rigid character count, in my opinion, has forced students to think carefully about communication and spelling and supported their precision of language. Students have been known to Tweet and then delete when they realize their first try did not communicate their ideas in an effective way. On top of all that, Tweeting about books has enabled students create a positive digital footprint and learn the rules for on-line communication.

A year later, I am so pleased with the outcome. It is Spring Break and my students are busy reading and Tweeting to each other - the conversation is impressive and I mostly just stand back in awe. Right before break, a really cool thing happened. A student in my class made it very, very clear to me in the fall that he would never join Twitter. Ever. I respected his wishes, even though his contributions in class are always insightful. Knowing that the other students would benefit from his input, I swallowed my disappointment and supported his position. In the weeks prior to break, students read and Tweeted and we talked a little in class. Excitement was building! The student in question kept up with the reading and always added value to the in-class discussions. On the day before break, he came up to me with his Chromebook and said, "So this Twitter thing - can you help me set up an account?" As predicted, he has been adding insight and wisdom to our Spring Break discussion!

Following the success of using Twitter in the middle school literacy classroom, I have been looking for ways to broaden the scope and have experimented with Twitter in other disciplines and age groups. Any cool ideas? Please comment! 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Finding the Fun in Faliure

As educators in the modern age, we recognize the importance of failure. We know it feels bad, but we also know that it is an important step towards growth.

Winston Churchil was on to this idea when he stated "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." Sometimes, that is a really hard thing to do.

At times, I am really good at failure and even embrace it. When I play tennis (or basketball, pickle, street hockey, dodge ball, wiffle ball, video games, ghost in the graveyard - you get the idea?) with my kids, I typically fail. This never, ever bothers me and I consistently have a great time. The stakes are low and I can occasionally learn a new thing that makes my failure less extreme the next time around. I know that I will never be able to compete with either of them in any sport I try, and yet, I keep going back for more and find myself laughing in spite of my failure.

When I fail with them, I am part of an accepting team. They encourage me to keep trying, to try a new approach and to get back up when I fall. They may laugh at my efforts, but they never judge my ineptitude. The conditions we have set as a family that plays sports allow each player to push him/herself to have fun and develop skill.

In other situations, failure feels a lot less positive. When I fail at a lesson, I feel like we have wasted 45 minutes of the students' time. When I have a bad interaction with a parent, student or colleague, I feel mean, incompetent or rude.

Failure is, among other things, a signal is something is wrong in either our approach or implementation. If you get out of the shower and there is still shampoo in your hair, you haven't properly rinsed. If your meatloaf tastes gross, you added the wrong ingredients.

When we fail at high stakes events, it feels different from burning the dinner or losing your keys at the grocery store. It feels more permanent, more damaging and just plain icky. But the truth is, failing when we really hoped to succeed is valuable and sometimes good.

Think of it this way: if I made asparagus that no one would eat, I learned some valuable things to help with future meals and have only wasted $2.99. I got some insight for not a huge cost. But what if the asparagus was not on sale? What if I have invested more time, money and effort? What if I had made the world's best asparagus and no one was home to enjoy it?

It is in these "what ifs" that failure in a high stakes event can be transformed into fun. Recently, I was turned down for a job I thought I really wanted. What if I had gotten that job? Would I have been effective and happy? What if there is a better opportunity on its way? Would I have missed out on that? What if I had never tried? Would I be the person I am today? Would I have been open to whatever opportunity might present itself next?

The answer is no. I failed and it felt really icky. But I also learned some really important things and for me, learning is the funnest thing there is. In a way, I turned that failure into fun - not the kind of fun I have when I lose in tennis or street hockey - but the fun in knowing that I am walking away with knowledge and determination to keep my enthusiasm in tact and robust. I rather think Churchill would approve.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bleary-Eyed, Happy & Riddled With Questions

My report cards are due tomorrow.  I just finished and it is 10:35 pm.  This isn't the latest hour at which I have finished, nor is it the earliest.

For better or for worse, my school relies heavily on a narrative to communicate progress.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I like being able to tell students and parents exactly what I see, rather than simply choosing from a menu of comments, as I've had to do in other schools.  Relating a specific moment or success is powerful.

On the other hand, I walked away from today's writing marathon worried that there was lots of room for bias.  Did I gush more about the one student than another?  Did I allow recent frustrations with a student over-shadow her growth?  Was there appropriate data to support what I wrote?

Don't get me wrong, I am pleased with the outcome of today's report card rally.  I read my comments over and over.  I looked at their scores and samples of student work.  A trusted colleague will read them all over the weekend and no doubt locate any comments that aren't quite right.  Or fair.

But every single time I go through this process I wonder: is there a better way?

A better blogger than me might have some answers to this question, but after nearly 12 hours of writing, I am not that blogger.  Instead, I am consumed with questions.  How do other schools and teachers balance data with personalized goals and progress?  What is the best way to communicate growth to students and parents?  Will what I wrote today enable students to make continued growth or just make them feel bad?  Are my positive comments going to lead to complacency or determination?

I have no answers.  But perhaps you do.  Please post comments.  What works for you? What research do you have that sheds light on reporting progress?

I need your help.  And some sleep!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Snow Day!!

In spite of the fact that I would rather have sunshine and rising temperatures, I was so delighted to have a snow day today.  After I received the call, I informed the two teenagers in my house who happily grunted.  Then, I gleefully jumped back into bed.  After a brief doze, I got up and ate waffles.

Let's read the paper!  Do you want to play Wii?  Can we go sledding?

Had today been a normal Tuesday, I would not have had these options.  Part of me felt guilty for saying yes to all of the above.  And for making hot chocolate, taking a brisk walk through the neighborhood and watching TV.  The truth is, I had lots to do.  The reporting cycle ends soon, I am working to tweak the school schedule with a committee and the summer program I run needs some attention.

The guilt eventually gave way to productivity.  I had intermittent fun all day - which allowed my brain to just take off.  I saw new solutions, got new ideas and, in the end, had a productive day.

I spent a lot of time wondering if the snow day had a similar impact on my students.  Will they show up tomorrow feeling better rested with the brains filled with new ideas?  Did they pursue some personal learning?  Take a walk?  Eat waffles?  Have fun?

I hope so.

The nerdy teacher in me would once have complained about a snow day.  After all, there are always things to learn and do at school.  But today, that same nerdy teacher learned that learning and productivity can take many forms.  A chat with your mom, a new level attained on the video game, and solution for an old problem can lead to really important learning.  That kind of productivity can really only come from a well-spent snow day.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

I Don't Shine If You Don't Shine

Blogging is a selfish act.  I blog for myself.  While it pleases me when others read and comment on my blog, I write because it helps me make sense of the day, my students, my plans and what really matters in life.

Teaching can be selfish, too, if we are not careful.  Sometimes teachers can get wrapped up in the lesson, the need to be in charge, or a desire to be in control and forget that teaching is really about the student.

My brother is dyslexic, only he never bothered to tell anyone until he was an adult.  He is also creative and hilarious - a combination that can be disruptive to traditional classrooms.  Not that long ago, he told me a story about when he was in 1st or 2nd grade.  It was the first week of school and he was nervous.  He was trying to make sure the pencil fit in the groove at the top of the desk when it fell.  He picked it up, but it fell again.  After about the third drop, the teacher noticed.  She was annoyed and said something like, "I guess we all have to wait for Benjamin."

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we have all made comments like this.  It usually isn't about the pencil or the even the student.  When we as teachers get annoyed, it is typically because something disrupted our plan for the day.

I'd like to be able to say that Benjamin brushed this off and moved on.  But he told me this in his thirties, so I'm guessing the shame and embarrassment lingered at least long enough for this event to become a story you might tell your sister later on in life.

When we think about how to show students kindness and caring, it is important to remember that little comments can have enormous ramifications.  We need to make teaching about the students and their needs - not our egos or the lesson - no matter how many times the pencil falls off the desk.

There is a Killers song that I love.  Read My Mind has nothing to do with teaching, learning or school.  To be honest, I am really not sure what it is about, but I love it anyway.  The lyrics read:
"Oh well I don't mind if you don't mind
'Cause I don't shine if you don't shine"

It's a little love song that I sing to my class sometimes.  Mostly, I sing it to myself to help me remember that I can be a selfish blogger, but never, ever a selfish teacher. I won't shine, if they don't shine.  Humans can shine, for sure, but we shine the best and brightest when we all shine together.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

How do we measure success?

A student had to take an standardized assessment today.  He ended up with the highest score of the day.  We fought about it off and on.  "Why do we have do do this?," he asked.  "I'm gonna fail," he said.

I wasn't sure how to answer the first question in way that either of us was comfortable with.  But I was certain that he was wrong about the second.

Fortunately for both us, we had lots of flexibility in terms how long he needed to finish.  We stopped and started a few times.  In the end, I had to persuade him that he had done well.

I accept the need for having to take a standardized test every now and then.   I accept that progress matters.  But as the teacher of students who work super hard, but sometimes their effort doesn't translate to a high scores, I wonder.  How do we measure success?   As a hard core perfectionist and the mom of two hard core perfectionists, I wonder.  How do we measure success?

From either perspective, today's exercise was difficult.  For my student, as it would have been for me and both of my sons, the highest score was not satisfactory.  He set a high bar for himself, and in his mind, didn't reach it.  Other students in my class went home disappointed as well, but for different reasons.  They had worked really hard, but didn't end up with a high score.

So how can we salvage a day when most of us go home disappointed? As an adult, I have developed the coping strategies necessary to bounce back from most set-backs.  My students aren't quite there.  They need a little more encouragement.  They need to be reminded of how far they have come.  They need to know that all of us have bad days, and sometimes making it until bus dismissal time is, in itself, a measure of success.  They need to be reminded that hard work pays off in unexpected ways, but not always with a great score.

Winston Churchill said, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."  All humans need this message.  Adults and students alike need to accept that we are not simply defined by our failure or - for all you hard core perfectionists our there - our success.

Do we keep going?  Do we get up and try, even when we'd rather not?  Do we have the courage to face both our success and our failures?  To me, that is the measure of success.  And that is the message that schools need to start sending to students.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Engaging Students

A while back, a parent asked me an important question.  "What kind of active learning opportunities do you provide?"  At the time, my instinct was to feel a little defensive.  My class is pretty fun, but we were covering some somewhat dry content that week.  And I was not on my best game.

Once I got over the perceived insult, I thought a lot about that question.  What are the ways I provide active learning that engages each student?  The discussion broadens when you think about work product - what are we asking students to produce that is engaging and meaningful?

These questions are so important that we must never stop asking them.  But it helps to think about some possible options, some tried and true ways to engage learners purposefully and meaningfully.  Here are a few that have been working for me lately:

Pear Deck - Pear Deck has been my go-to source for fun lessons and formative assessments.  My students even ask "Can we please have a Pear Deck today?"  In essence, Pear Deck allows the presenter to share information -slides, pictures, videos -  and ask questions that require a variety of different responses - numbers, text, drawing.  Teachers can share the responses with the class (which are pretty cool when there are numbers involved) or not, depending on the purpose.  It is a great way to give each student a voice, spark a lively conversation, practice writing skills, clarify thinking - you name it!  Pear Deck sends me weekly emails with data about the number of students engaged each week and the times each student participated.  Last week, I learned that 16 students engaged a total of 299 times - which would not be possible in a traditional classroom set up.

Drama - As the mom of a budding actor, I have grown to appreciate this performing art.  The benefits for the audience are one thing, but the actors themselves learn a great deal about their character and human nature in the process.  As a result, we act things out often.  Not simply confusing chapters in the book (see picture below), but confusing content in science, history and math.  Why did people volunteer to fight in the Civil War?  What does mitosis look like?  How can we find the average of our heights?  These questions require deep understanding, which is nearly impossible to obtain from simply reading the text book or listening in class.  Having students act out difficult concepts allows them to be engaged and invested, which supports their understanding in powerful ways.

Build Things - I am not particularly good with my hands, but nothing gets a class excited about learning quite like the opportunity to create things.  Models, machines, inventions - it really doesn't matter.  Building stimulates thinking, creativity and movement.  Messy, but fun!

Engagement matters.  Students need to participate actively in their own learning if it is to have meaning and value.  Our world requires thinkers and do-ers and the beauty of actively engaging students is that they learn to become both.