Saturday, September 17, 2016

Walking the Walk

One of the life skills I try to impress upon my students is the fact that every mistake is an opportunity to learn. I also try to teach my kids to get the whole story or get to know a person before they make a judgment. The first is especially important for me because I feel like all of the pressure to score well on the tests we gives makes students feel like mistakes are bad things. 

It's easy to look at these things from the lens of doing school work - what is one mistake on a math paper? Butting in front of your friend in line? Calling out while somebody else is talking? All mistakes we can learn from, but at the end of the day they won't change our lives. 

But what about real life? This week I was part of a very challenging situation. It made me judgmental. I assumed. I didn't think about the fact that there's always part of the story that we'll probably never know. I questioned and "what if-ed" many different things. I forgot that every experience in our lives should be looked at as an opportunity to learn. 

After some time I was able to look at the event from a different perspective. And as I've reflected over the past few days, I realized that I needed to do what I teach my kids. We all make mistakes. While there are always some sort of consequences (another valuable lesson I try to teach my kids), mistakes don't have to define a person. People deserve a chance to learn from their mistakes. Judging a person based on one event means that you never really get to know who that person truly is beyond that one action. 

My hope is that everybody involved in this situation has the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and move on. I know I have, and I hope to do my part to help others do so as well. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

First Week Reflection

Well, week 1 is in the books. As I look back over the learning and thinking I did this summer, I found some things that I wanted to do that I didn't (yet) and some things that I wasn't even thinking about that I did.

For example, in this post I talked about letting my kids set up the classroom. That didn't happen. I arranged my desk, my other furniture, and my students' desks so I would have a large group area, places for small groups to work, some places where individual students could go to have quiet time, and specific places for my two groups to have their materials. I haven't given up on this idea, but it just hasn't happened yet. What I did decide to do came from our experience at our first inservice day. I felt comfortable and was willing to take risks that day because of the people who were in my group. So I decided to let my kids pick their seats, which I have done in the past, but this year I'm going to let them stay there. Usually, after the first week, I would get an idea of who the talkers were, which best buds sat next to each other, which groups needed a better mix of stronger learners, and then I would regroup the kids. This year I'm not. I'm going to let them stay there for another week or so, and then I'm going to ask them who they'd like their new group to be. It was actually a really cool experience because when my afternoon class came in to pick their seats, one boy even said, "I don't think we should sit together. Sometimes we don't get along." And the other boy agreed and picked a different seat. I'm curious to see where this little seating experiment takes me.

One of the best things I did this summer was set my goals for the year, and one of them was to incorporate more student directed learning. To start off each year I do the same set of team building activities, and the purpose of these is to help the kids get to know each other and to create reminder posters for the students to refer back to throughout the year. The result of my first activity is typically a "how my actions affect others" poster, then I do a "problem maker" poster and a "problem solver" poster. This year, as we did the first activity and started to reflect, my kids made some awesome statements that didn't really fit into the framework I had used in the past. I caught myself starting to tell the kids that their ideas were good, but I wanted to focus on something else. I stopped, and I wrote down their statements. I used those statements to start a "Wall of Learning" in my classroom (pictures coming on Tuesday) where we will be posting any comments the kids make that show they have learned something about life. Does it feel weird to not have my model charts up on the wall? It sure does. But I'm excited to take the ideas of growth mindset and student directed learning and put them into practice. I'm also happy to realize that I have already given my students the opportunity to direct the learning in our classroom.

A final change came on parent night. Our directions were to start with a brief, 2-3 minute introduction about ourselves and then speak about the curriculum. What the students will learn was to be the focus of our parent night. I respectfully disagree with that. If the parents want to know what the kids will learn, they'll look up our curriculum documents. I believe that parents are coming to see who their child is spending their days with and what their child's life will be like while they are at school. So with that in mind, I introduced myself, I talked about the required topics, and then I did a growth mindset activity with the parents that I had done with my students. It was amazing! I learned that my parents are as scared, if not more scared, than the kids to share their ideas and make mistakes. But I also learned that the parents thought the ideas of growth mindset made sense and were great things to practice. I hope to use our discussion about being brave as a connection for all of my communication with my parents this year.

It wasn't all butterflies and unicorns, but I will say that it was a pretty good start. I'm still adjusting to having two distinct groups of kids in my room, and I'm still struggling with how to feel equally connected to each. But I'm sure that will come with time. Right now I'm going to enjoy the rest of my long weekend with family and friends, and I hope that you all will do the same!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Inservice Was Amazing

Wait...... what????????

I know, I know, it's shocking, but you read that correctly. Today was my first teacher day back at school for the 16-17 school year, and it was absolutely amazing.

My district gets it. They get that we have moved way too far on the "let's pass the test" continuum, and now we are swinging back. The swing back is focusing on the 4C's of 21st century learning: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. We also added in a 5th - control; as in you need to release control to the kids. So instead of just sitting around and talking about it, today we actually did it.

We started our day with the usual welcome message, but that very quickly transitioned to an entire day of stations and sessions that we could choose for ourselves. We weren't assigned to groups. We weren't give a schedule to follow. We were basically given a series of challenges and told, "Go see what you can do!" These challenges included:

  • 6 organized presentations for which we needed "tickets" - they included a presentation by Bricks for Kidz, a session on mindfulness, a drum circle, a paint and create activity, a team building activity, and geocaching.
  • a Twitter challenge (check out #easdopeningday to see all of the fun activities)
  • a series of outdoor games (cornhole,  and giant versions of Jenga, Connect 4, Scrabble, Pick Up Sticks, and Dominoes)
  • a photo scavenger hunt
  • a Graffiti Wall where people could simply post their thoughts
  • a marshmallow / pasta building challenge
  • an egg drop challenge (Our egg didn't break!)
  • an ice cream truck with ice cream for everybody
Lunch was served from 11-1, and we needed to be back at the main area by 2:00. But other than that the days was ours to plan and carry out. I was able to attend the Bricks for Kidz presentation (good, but too much talking) and the drum circle. My group and I worked on the photo scavenger hunt, participated in the egg drop, played cornhole and an intense game of pick up sticks, and enjoyed some delicious ice cream. Definitely not your typical inservice day.

At 2:00 we wrapped up our activities with a little reflection where they asked us 4 questions for reflection. We got into groups representing K-3, 4-6, 7-8, and 9-12 (a rarity that we all get to interact) and talked about our thoughts and take aways from the day. While our group came up with some great ideas, here are mine:
  • My district administrators trust me. They didn't need to put me in an assigned group, have an administrator follow me, or make me complete a series of sign-ins. I was trusted to go out and make the best of my day, and that made me want to get as much out of it as possible.
  • I have permission to go for it. If my administrators are willing to give up the control and let us learn the way we did today, it means I have permission to do the same with my students.
  • Even when you sometimes want to go it on your own, it is nice to have the support of others. We could all go inside our classrooms and close the door, but it would not help the kids or be nearly as much fun as working together to solve problems.
  • It's okay to get out of your comfort zone. You will survive, and you just might possibly like something you never thought you would.
  • Just like my colleagues and I deserve the opportunity to lead, so do our kids. Sure, it may take a few extra days, but it's time to give the kids the reins when it's possible and see what they come up with.
  • There are many, many ways to show proficiency, and they don't always involve a pencil, a test book, and a bubble sheet. I'm really hopeful that we begin to have a little more freedom with how we measure our students' proficiency towards the standards.
I honestly never thought I would say that an inservice day was the best day ever, but clearly the tides are turning. After years of feeling like I was doing a disservice to my kids by focusing only on "the tests" I finally feel like I can focus on my kids and help them learn and grow as amazing human beings. It's going to be a great year!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Trying to Refocus

Not going to lie, I had a little bit of a melt down today while I was working in my classroom. I am trying to keep in mind all that I learned and reflected upon this summer. And as I was thinking about everything, all that kept creeping into my mind were all of the roadblocks I was facing. I had to leave school, come home, and spend some time at my favorite spot by the river to help myself get back on track.

Probably the most important lesson I had to repeat over and over today was that things don't have to be perfect. Things can be changed if they don't work out. It's okay to try something, decide I don't like it, and then try something else. But I just want it to be perfect -- these kids are going through such a huge change, I want everything to be perfect for them so their transition can be as smooth as possible. But just as I want to give them grace and make it easy for them, I am being hard on myself. This would be a huge transition for me just to switch my teaching assignment. Now add on all of these new strategies I'd like to try, and everything is even huger.... more huge? Bigger. More uncertain.

And instead of being patient with myself and giving myself the chance to experience a few bumps, I'm putting the pressure on myself to make everything perfect.

Seriously?? Nobody is perfect. Nor did anybody ever expect me to be perfect. So where did this come from?? I don't know, but I'm going to keep reminding myself that the best I can do is try. If things work, great. If not, I'm a pretty good planner and a pretty good problem solver, so I sure I'll be able to come up with a different solution.

Time to refocus and reset my attitude. I'm not setting up my perfect classroom. I'm getting ready for a great group of kids, and together we will learn and grow and figure out what works best for us.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Camp Can Do

I'm sure I've probably posted about camp before, but it's probably been such a while I thought I would take a minute to talk about it again.

Camp Can Do, formerly sponsored by the American Cancer Society, is now a nonprofit organization that runs at Gretna Glen Camp & Retreat Center. Camp Can Do provides two weeks of patient camps for children currently in treatment or those who have been in treatment for a wide variety of pediatric cancers. In addition to our patient camps, we also run a weekend camp for the siblings of our patients.

Many times when I talk about camp, people will say, "Oh how sad. That must be a terribly hard thing to do." In a way, they are right. When we have to say goodbye to our campers, it sucks. There's no easy way around that. But the week itself... the week itself is magical. People also often say, "Wow. Thank you for doing that," or, "What a wonderful thing you're doing to help these kids." While I appreciate the sentiment, I shouldn't be thanked. Believe it or not, we should be thanking the kids.

I wish I could accurately put into words what camp means to me. I wish I could explain the silly, ridiculous jokes, the body noises, the goofy actions, the amazing accomplishments, and the hope that fills up my heart. But honestly, those words don't do it justice. I'm not even sure a story will do it, but I can try.

My partner and I are the counselors in the youngest girls' cabin, so we typically have girls ages 8, 9, and 10. Often we have very sick little girls, other times our girls have been out of treatment for a while even at their young ages. This year, we had a young lady who is not only taking medicine for cancer, but she also faces the challenges of being deaf and mute. As we got our medical review before the campers arrived, we were told that nobody was really sure if she understood that much sign language, and if she read lips it would probably only be in Spanish because that is what is spoken in her home. We don't speak Spanish. We didn't speak sign language. But they told us she was a great young lady, we would love her, and we would figure it out.

It's amazing how universal some hand signals are. We were able to get started on Sunday with lots of pointing and making up our own signs. Thankfully, another counselor in our cabin has a friend who signs, and we quickly found out that our young lady spoke sign language much better than anybody realized. With the help our cabin partner and another good friend who took a sign language class last year, we were able to learn many new signs to help us throughout the week.

While that's interesting, the even better part of this story came as we went through the rest of the week. The other kids, who really didn't HAVE to learn sign language and include her, made it their goal to learn some sign language to be able to play and talk with our young lady. 15, 16, and 17 year old campers spent time during our free time playing "house" with our young lady. She would give them a chore or challenge to complete, and if they didn't complete it, they would be sent to bed early! We never once asked these kids to do this. We never once had to say, "Hey, don't forget to include our friend." It got to the point where she didn't need any of the adults any more, and that's just the way we like it.

Camp is like a world of love in its own little bubble. These kids have every reason to be ticked off, to be angry, to think people owe them something. And they don't. They are full of caring, compassionate hearts, and they do everything they can to show how thankful they are to be there. They are present in every moment of camp, and they soak every experience up like a sponge. I learn so much about appreciating the small things and loving life from these kids that it fills my cup for the entire year. In a summer full of reflection, my week at camp was the icing on the cake. It has me ready to be positive and present throughout the school year because my "other kids" deserve it just as much as my "summer kids" do.

In case you're interested in learning more about Camp Can Do, you can check out our website. If you're in the PA, MD, NJ, DE, NY area, we also have our first annual Gala coming up, and we would love to have you join us.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Giving Up Control

The puppies decided they didn't really want to sleep in this morning, so I was up early (well, early for me.... some of you people... oy!) and reading through some of my blog posts from the past few days. As I was reading this one by George Couros it definitely got me thinking about all of the time I spend in my classroom and how it's changed over the years.

I used to be that person who was in my room for hour and hours getting things set up and looking perfect for the start of the year. Then I started following the Daily 5 workshop format, so I left a lot of information off my walls. All of the anchor charts that went with the Daily 5 activities were made with the students, so my bulletin boards, my word wall, and my motivational posters were up, but large chunks of my room were empty so we could create those charts together. I often wondered what parents thought of those empty walls because the stereotypical elementary classroom is all butterflies and bumblebees and color and Pinterest whoooaaaaaa, but nobody ever really said anything much about it.

This summer I've also started becoming more interested in learning a little bit about self-regulation thanks to these posts by Aviva. While I'm patiently waiting for my book to arrive, it got me thinking about all of the "stuff" we have all over our classrooms, and do I need to have less stuff instead of more stuff to help my kids be successful?

All of these puzzle pieces led me to write this statement in my "New Ideas" document that I've started this summer:

Ask the kids how THEY want to set up the classroom and what THEY want to see on the walls.

That was quickly followed up with these questions:

Do I give the kids guidelines - a space for this, a space for that? 
Do I tell them what I used to do?
Do I just let them go and see what they come up with?
How do I deal with the fact that I have two distinct classes instead of just one? Do I really have the time for the second kids to rearrange the classroom, or do they just deal with what works for my morning kids?

I'll be quite honest, I am very intrigued by this idea. I'm just wondering if I can really give up the control necessary to let it happen, and I also wonder how I can blend the needs of both my classes so that the room works for everybody. I think that my fourth graders would actually do a great job with it, so I think this may be one of those times where I just have to go for it and see what happens. At the worst, I come in some weekend and reset the room, and we try again. Isn't that what life's all about?

Anybody try this? How has it gone? Any pointers for somebody who's just giving it a go for the first time? 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

No Better Time

This week's assignment for my district's book group from Unbreakable by Angela Watson was a combination of several different topics, but the one I could appreciate the most was the topic of finding your own professional development. Even when I haven't been as active here doing my own posting, I'm always browsing different sites to see what I can learn. I've said it once, and I'll say it again:

I have learned more through Twitter chats and my online communities than I have ever learned in a district sponsored / developed professional development day.

Some people might see that as a sad statement, but I choose to look at it as an opportunity for my district to grow and change and as an opportunity for me to love learning and find what's best for me and my kids. I worry that once EdCamps and personal connectedness become "the latest thing" and that it will lose it's personal side. That's what makes all of my PLNs here online so special -- they are mine, not something that somebody told me I had to do or something that my district pigeonholed me into through a set of choices. 

I've been spending a lot of time learning through my favorite blogs (I use Feedly to keep track of all of the ones that I follow) and Twitter (Tweetdeck is also a go to for me) this summer to help me adjust my feelings about the change in my teaching assignment in the fall and look for new strategies that I can use. I want to be a better teacher of kids, not a better teacher of math and science. To that end, I've got several documents started with links to activities, blog posts, videos, activities, and notes from books and articles that seem to be great resources for the new year. 

And then I read this post by Pernille, and it made me laugh to myself. How many times have I found the BEST resources or discovered the GREATEST idea over the summer, only to have it fizzle out in a month or not even make it to my classroom? More than I'd like to admit. Pernille makes a great point. When we get busy, we settle into what's comfortable (the known, the usual) for us. I always have grand plans for all of the new knowledge I learn, but they never seem to really come to fruition. The first suggestion, "Do things now," may seem like I'm wasting my summer. But as I mentioned above, I love learning over the summer when it's mine. Intentionally setting aside a day makes sense to me so I actually sit down and rework my plans to incorporate my new learnings so I make the best use of them during the school year.

I'm hoping that if I really use one day each week, leaving me six other days for non-school related summer fun, I will be able to focus on my goals and really achieve what I would like to accomplish for myself and with my kids this year. 

So let's hear it! What are your favorite tools for your learning? What are you doing to enjoy your summer and still feel ready for the upcoming school year?