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?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Change

Recently I stumbled upon a TV show called Bar Rescue, and it's been fascinating to see an "expert" go into a failing bar and turn it around in a matter of 5 days. Each bar has a bit of a different situation, but the general themes of owners being overwhelmed, owners not being present, and owners being indifferent to what's going on in and around their bars are the ones that viewers see the most.

As I was watching today, it got me thinking about how hard a monumental change really is, and how easy they can make in seem as they pick out the best scenes from 5 intense days and pack it into an hour long show. Particularly for those owners who are adamant that there is nothing wrong with them or their business, I sit and wonder what actually happened - who was it? what did they say? was there some kind of intervention? - behind the scenes that actually made these people turn over a new leaf. Interesting enough, a quick search of Bar Rescue locations near me shows that all seven of the locations within 100 miles of me ended up closing, even after being rescued. Maybe change takes more than five days and a newly renovated bar?

It wasn't just a TV show that got me thinking about this topic. Change has been on my mind because Friday was the one year anniversary of moving into my new home. I left my "starter home" of 14 years for a new life, and even though it was the right decision, it was hard. Changing my life, even though it has made me a happier, healthier person, was hard. Terribly hard. Changing my teaching assignment at the end of this year was hard.

I guess where I'm going with this is that change always kinda sucks. No matter how you try to have a good attitude, look for the positives, and make the choice to focus on what you can control, it's a challenging situation. And we never seem to give people (and especially ourselves) the grace or the time we deserve to actually process and work through the change so that we can come out the other side a better, stronger person.

My challenge to you is for you to give yourself and others some grace when there's change going on. You never know how a little bit of time, a kind word, or just some space to process something new will help somebody learn and grow.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Goals

After yesterday's post I sat down and really thought about what I want for my goals and priorities. First I really had to think about what goals and priorities are. I came up with the following definitions for myself:

Goals: those things that I want to accomplish by the end of the next school year
Priorities: the things I want to keep at the top of my list for my well-being

I made lots of lists and realized that the whole purpose of this was to limit what I was doing, so I tried to focus on manageable for one school year. Here's what I came up with:

Goals for 2016-2107:
  • Look at my students as whole children - I will not focus on my kids as test scores, and I will do what I can do help them develop as good people.
  • Get back to using technology the way I was using it 5 years ago
  • Incorporate more student choice / student directed learning in my classroom 
  • Develop well written, integrated science units for each unit of study
Priorities to achieve my goals:
  • Use my time at work wisely so that I can focus on my health and enjoy my time at home
  • Focused planning time with my teaching partner to help us both learn and grow as teachers
  • Use my online presence to learn and reflect on what's happening in my classroom
I feel like my one extra duty, my building's tech liaison, falls into my first goal and my priority to keep up my online presence. There's also another potential position I might apply for that would support all of these different goals and priorities. I'm hopeful that setting these goals and using what I'm learning this summer will help me be successful this year.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Setting Priorities and Goals

I mentioned a few posts ago that I'm a yes girl. It's really hard for me to say no, especially when it comes to stuff that will let me play an active role in the changes going on in my district. I'm pretty positive.... scratch that, I'm absolutely certain that some people believe that I participate so often because I'm bossy, want things done my way, and have a big mouth. I hate that I come across that way, and I'm really working on fixing that (although I guess some people's perceptions will always be the same no matter what I do), but in my heart I know I do it because I want us doing what's best for kids.

Because of my tendencies to get involved in everything, I have definitely overextended myself at times. This has left me feeling overwhelmed, and I've often felt like I can do a few things great while leaving other things in the dust. To cope I rotated the things that were done well and the things that I slacked on in the hopes that eventually I'd do a good enough job at everything to keep having my voice heard.

A couple of things happened that have started to change that.

First, I have a new life. It sounds kind of dramatic, especially since I didn't have a life-threatening illness and nothing horrible has happened to me, but I really do feel like I'm living a totally different life since my divorce. As such, I actually like being at home.

Second, through no choice of my own, my teaching assignment has changed. When I moved to my new school 5 years ago, we were pigeon-holed into teaching only Social Studies and ELA or STEM classes. But after one year, my close friends and I recognized all of the transitions were horrible for our kids. We proposed that two of us would switch back to teaching all four subjects, and that proposal was accepted. It was fantastic to offer kids stability during a huge transition, and I still feel like it's the best thing for kids. Unfortunately, that program has ended, and this year I'll be teaching only math and science. While I'm trying to look at the positive and see this as the opportunity to ONLY focus on two subjects, my heart is breaking because I know kids will struggle this year because they have too many teachers and too many transitions throughout the day.

Third, I have stepped down from my position on the math curriculum committee. I was tired of being blamed for our grade level's poor PSSA scores. I was tired of being judged as somebody who couldn't lead a group of teachers. I was tired of being told one thing in one situation, and then being told in front of the group that the initial discussion never happened and I was wrong. While my learning during my time on the math committee was tremendously valuable, it wasn't worth some of the other situations I was dealing with. So I decided that it was time for a fresh set of eyes to take a look at things.

Fourth, I continue to read through Unshakeable by Angela Watson, and in it she reminds us that it is okay to say no. She encourages her readers to set priorities and goals. Obviously everybody wants goals to move towards, but Watson suggests using them as a framework for saying yes. If something meets your list of goals and priorities, say yes to it. If it doesn't, say no. People who care about you will understand the no, people who don't will judge you. But they likely would judge you no matter what, so it's always better to keep your well-being at the fore front of your mind.

So, here I am wanting to have more time at home, starting to only teach only 2 subjects, taking a huge responsibility off my plate, and learning more about setting boundaries. It seems like it would be simple for me to create my list of priorities and goals.

I have no idea where to start. Lofty versus manageable. Professional versus personal. Short term versus long term. Just like everything else, I'm making a list of priorities and goals that is way longer than is reasonable. So now I need to throw everything out on paper, really look at them, and think about what I really want to do this year. Decisions, decisions.

What are your priorities and goals for the upcoming school year? How do you limit them so that your time and actions can be meaningful and purposeful?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Tough Lessons

I think we can all agree that sometimes life teaches us the most important lessons in the toughest, most awful ways. Three times in the last few weeks I've been saddened by losses, and now that I can finally step back and look at the losses with a bigger lens I realize that I learned a very valuable lesson.

The first loss was the loss of my parents' dear cat, Janie. Now, I can already hear some of you starting that losing a cat is really not that big of a deal. And for you, that may be correct. But for those of us who love animals, losing a pet is really like losing a beloved family member. Our animals are the ones who love us unconditionally, never talk back to us or judge us, and are always there to greet us no matter how grumpy we are from a bad day. Her loss was especially bad because it coincided with my dad's birthday. I watched my mom and dad question their actions and what they could have done differently to prevent the situation.

The second loss was the loss of a beautiful young lady in my school district. I didn't know this girl, but her death has sent shockwaves through our community.

A final loss happened again to my parents. We thought we had found them a friendly, curious new kitten to fill the empty space left by Janie's passing. My parents and I spent about an hour and a half with her, my dad had named her, and she really seemed to be getting along with my mom. But through a very unfortunate event, that kitten passed away, too. For the next day all of us blamed ourselves. We didn't eat, we didn't really sleep, and we were constantly thinking things over. What we could have done differently? What we should have done differently? What would have made things turn out differently than they did? Unfortunately hindsight is always 20/20.... I absolutely hate it when people say it, but it is so true. We can always look back at a situation and think about what we should have done differently to get a more desired outcome. But the fact of the matter is, maybe that outcome that we wanted really isn't the one that we needed at the time.

So I mentioned that sometimes these awful situations help us learn valuable lessons. Here are my new learnings this week:

The first lesson I've learned is to follow my gut. In the case of both me and my parents, we each had that gut feeling about both cat situations, and we dismissed them. This isn't the first time this has happened to me. My gut typically gets things right, and I need to follow it a little more closely in the future. School wise, my gut has been telling me that is more important to focus on the kids and their well being than on test scores. This terrible tragedy solidifies this for me, and I am going to make it the focus of my year this year.

Another lesson is that we can't blame ourselves in many of these situations. We can "shoulda, woulda, coulda" ourselves until our hearts ache and until we feel like there is no way out. But the fact of the matter is that you can't ever go back in time and change things. There is always a reason we make the choices we make at the time we make them. We have to take what has happened, learn from it, and move forward (when we're ready) with those new lessons helping shape those steps.

What do you think are the most important lessons that you have learned from challenging situations? How have they shaped the person you are today?

Friday, July 1, 2016

Moving Past Fear

Dictionary.com lists the first definition of fear as

a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

For a long time I let fear control much of what I did. Many of the fears I had involved others and what they might say or think about me as I was trying whatever task was at hand. I stayed way too long in a crappy situation because of my fear of being labeled a failure and because of my own belief that if I couldn't fix things then I was a failure. I'm not sure where this fear came from, and why I was so driven by what others thought of me (perhaps my own struggles with my self esteem?), but I was afraid to try so many things.

Then there were some fears that didn't have anything to do with other people. For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of thunderstorms and heights. My mom swears that my fear of thunderstorms comes from the day I was born. It was an unusually hot and humid day (which means it HAD to be bad if it was unusually hot and humid for a PA summer!), and that evening our area experienced some of the worst storms my mom can remember. It didn't matter what stories or scientific facts my parents told me about the thunder and lightning, if there was a storm I was sleeping on their floor. While I'm getting better as I get older, some storms still get my heart racing.

I'm not sure where the fear of heights came from, but it's pretty bad in some cases. I have a really hard time walking up steps with open backs. I can't stand on somebody's loft in their house and look down over their first floor. I love flying and roller coasters, but please don't ask me to walk up the steps inside the Statue of Liberty or get up on a ladder. Or on a step stool, really. Yeah - it's that bad.

I've had a pretty long bucket list to which I've kept adding instead of crossing off. Many of these items remained on the list because I've been too afraid of the task itself or of what people would think of me while I was doing it. Two examples include doing a mud run and going zip lining. My thoughts ranged from, "What would people think?" to, "I'm too big to do a mud run," to, "Zip lining sounds fun, but I'm too afraid of heights so I'll never do it."

Well, low and behold, with the right motivation I am discovering that I can overcome, or at least work through, my fears. When asked by an amazing young lady, I very quickly signed up for and completed a challenging mud run. It wasn't about competing, it wasn't about going fast, it was all about helping Sarina meet her goal. And with that single-minded focus I didn't really care how I did everything or what anybody else said, our group just made sure Sarina finished.

Zip lining wasn't quite so easy. There was no other person to focus on as I completed the tasks of climbing up onto the platforms, crossing the bridges, and jumping out into the forest. It was all about me, my willingness to trust that I'd be okay, and to not worry about what others might think. So as a special celebration for our birthdays, my friend and I signed up to go zip lining at Refreshing Mountains. My friend knew I was scared and offered to cancel, but I said no way. He constantly asked if I was okay and cheered me on as I completed each task. Our guides couldn't have been more supportive, nor could the family of five that were with us in our group. These three kids and their grandparents could have easily made fun of the lady who was chicken, but instead they celebrated each of my little victories, including the first time I stopped hugging the tree in the middle of the platform! Each jump and landing helped me build more and more confidence until I was able to complete the final task with just a little nudge from our guide. I'm still in shock that I did it, but I actually think I want to go back and try it again. We'll see. 

The fact is this: I crossed both of these items off my list. I did it! I still am afraid of heights, I still am not super confident in myself. But each little victory helps me believe more and more in myself and become more and more willing to try things that I once never thought I'd be able to do.