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!