Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Of Puppies and Kids

On April 21 my life turned a little upside down when we decided to adopt a puppy. Now, I've rescued dogs before, but I've never done the puppy thing. I've always rescued older dogs. Since I kind of looked at him like a fresh slate, I decided that if I was going to do a puppy, I was going to start right away with training so that eventually we could become part of KPETS.

Seriously..... how cute is this little dude?? He'll be 6 months old tomorrow, in case you were wondering.

Crosby and I signed up for our beginning manners program at a local pet food store, and began our classes at the beginning of June. The instructor was a wonderful lady named Kaye (seriously - anybody in the Lancaster, PA area looking for a dog trainer -- she has got to be your go to person!), and I loved the fact that she doesn't call what she does puppy training; she calls it people training for dogs.

We have been working hard to master many skills over the past two months: sit, down, stand, place, stay, wait, look, come, and tag were all included. Using what we learned Crosby is also, almost, sleeping on his own bed at night now. We did so well learning all of these new skills that we graduated on Monday night and are all signed up for our advanced class that begins in September!

I went into class expecting to come out with a puppy who could do some different skills, but what surprised me was how *I* came out with more of a growth mindset, my thinking challenged, and some ideas about how I need to do things differently in my classroom. You might be asking yourself how that could possibly happen, so let me share some of thing things that happened in our puppy class to help me grow this summer.

First you need to know that Kaye is an incredibly calm, even-tempered person. No matter how many dogs were barking or what she was doing to help a dog, she used a quiet voice, she moved slowly and calmly, and she always had a happy voice. She is also persistent. It didn't matter how many times it took, if there was a dog having trouble with something, she would work on that skill over and over and over, praising the dog for what it did do, until the dog actually demonstrated the skill.

Second, she was extremely organized and well planned. Each class we left with a homework paper that reviewed exactly what we did in class and what she wanted us to do at home. It was great to have a reference sheet when things just weren't going well.

Then there were some of the things she said (obviously these are exact quotes, but they're how I remember her words from class):

  • Your puppy doesn't want to be around you when you're angry or upset. Really, nobody does. Use a happy voice, and you'll get results.
  • Make it a game. Have fun with your puppy!
  • Praise, praise, praise! People always want to tell our dogs what they're doing wrong. Why don't we focus on what they do right?
  • Your puppy just wants to know you love him or her. Remember to always show them you do.
  • If your puppy is doing something you don't want him to do, you better make darn sure that YOU are more interesting than what you expect the dog to walk away from. How are you going to do that?
  • Keep at it. Puppies are just growing and learning. Some days you'll take 4 steps forward, and other days you'll take 10 steps back. That doesn't mean you're doing something wrong, your puppy is bad, or either of you can't do it. It just means it's not going to happen that day. 
  • Take a deep breath. Puppies can be frustrating, and some days you just have to forget about it and get ready to try another day or get ready to try another way.

So now, take a minute and go back and reread those bullets. But instead of puppies, put in the word student or students. Go ahead --- do it.

Pretty impactful, isn't it.

I thought a lot this summer about the times I got frustrated, lost my temper, raised my voice, gave up, and felt like a failure. Sometimes these thoughts made me sad, and other times I felt hopeful because now that I recognize it I hope that I can be different with my kids. Sure there are days when I still yell at Crosby or give him a swat on the nose for ripping the grass out of the yard, but I always catch myself and turn it around so he knows I love him and that I know we'll figure it out because he's still learning.

I thought a lot about how I worked differently with my puppy than I did with my students. Perhaps it's because there's no pressure. Yes, Crosby and I do have "assessments" we'll have to complete in order to meet our goal, but there's no time table; we take the assessments when we are ready. And if we don't get it the first time, we can always take them again. While I sort of have that chance with my students, I can work harder to offer opportunities to help them see that nothing is ever final, and we can always keep learning and working.

So thank you, Kaye. Thank you for training me to not only be a good mommy to Crosby but to also be a better teacher for my students.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Seven Months Later

And just like that, the school year is over. To say it was my toughest in 19 years is an understatement, but in a way the year was a very weird juxtaposition. Because, in a way, it was also one of the best years I've ever had.

On one hand, my new position as a professional learning leader allow me opportunities to lead professional development sessions for my colleagues in my building and talk about topics like helping students develop a growth mindset, trying out a genius hour, and incorporating creativity by connect with our special area teachers. The discussions that came out of these sessions were very powerful, as were the questions, so I'm hoping to move forward next year with a bi-weekly newsletter with tips and tricks and co-teaching with different people who are interested in giving some new things a try. I'm also starting to think that maybe being an instructional coach may be the next thing for me. Still not sure on that, but I truly have enjoyed working with the other teachers to change how they do things in their classrooms. I also really enjoyed changing how *I* did things in my classroom. It certainly was hard to turn my back on the PVAAS scores and all of that, but I feel like the opportunities for creativity and problem solving that I integrated in my classroom benefitted my kids way more than any test score ever will. I'm really hoping the think more about how I can do that and more closely connect the activities with my curriculum this year.

So, after reading all of that awesomeness, you might be wondering how I had such an awful year. I guess the easiest way to explain it is that I'm a bit of a sensitive soul. I know how hard I work for my kids, and I know everything I try to do to make sure they're learning the best they can. So to repeatedly hear that you aren't good enough, that you don't know what you're doing, and maybe somebody needs to teach you what to do for certain kids.... well, that can be a hard pill to swallow. Mental illness is also a very difficult pill to swallow. And when you're working with kids who are struggling with mental illness, every day feels like tiptoeing around a mine field. Every. Single. Day. And every single day it feels like you aren't getting through, you're not doing enough, and you're having to protect yourself and the other kids you care about from whatever words or actions come might come your way. It drains you when you get bombarded all the time.

But the good news is that it's over, and I'm looking forward to a restful and relaxing summer with all kinds of things planned to rebuild me and who I am as a person and a teacher.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Beat Down

I had such high hopes for this year. I look back over my posts for the summer, and I reflect upon the goals I set and how much I hoped to accomplished with my kids. I was so excited about all that I've learned about teaching students to have a growth mindset and having the opportunity to share my new learnings with other teachers. Although sad, I was getting used to the idea of teaching only two subjects, and I was very excited to plan well thought out units without having to spread myself too thin. I look back on the resources I found this summer, and what I hoped to accomplish.

And now?

We are only 10 weeks into the school year, and I am exhausted and feeling worthless. I'm a punching bag. Opening my email makes me start to panic. Walking into school has my stomach in knots. I come home every night wondering how I could possibly do more and what I have done so wrong.

We are the lightning rods, and the insults and threats are the lightning bolts. They hit, and they hurt.

"Just let it go in one ear and out the other. You know it's not true."

"You are a great teacher; don't let them get you down."

"It's not that they are mad at you. They just don't know what else to do so they're taking it out on you."

But it's not that easy. Each of those words sticks. No matter how many times I read the positive emails and replay the highlights of my days, it's the negative, stinging words that I'm lying awake thinking about at 3 AM.

I'm not sure how to make this better, but I can say that in my 19 years there has never been one like this. I hope we can figure out how to make it better before everything I love about teaching is gone.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mindset on a Plane

This year I have taken on a new position, 21st Century Professional Learning Leader, in addition to my daily teaching duties. While I was waiting to be given a "here's what you're going to do as a PLL," paper or speech, I found out very quickly that wasn't going to happen. I learned that I had the opportunity to take this new position and make it into something of my own.

When I met with my principal initially about my position, the focus was most definitely on technology. I agree that technology plays a huge role in our lives today, but it definitely is not THE only part of 21st century learning and skills. If you've done any reading on the topic, you may have seen this graphic from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning:

While tech skills are part of one piece of the puzzle, they aren't the entire puzzle. I wanted to help people understand that, and I wanted to really focus on the critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity piece and how it relates to the work we do in school. I was also extremely curious about how the concepts of growth and fixed mindsets, a topic my district has focused on from a philosophical perspective but not so much an instructional one, fit into all of this.

I decided to use the idea of developing growth mindsets as the vehicle for my part of our school's professional development we started in August and will continue through the rest of the year. I found a resource called Ready to Use Resources for Mindsets in the Classroom, and I used that to plan my first session in August. It was well received, but I knew there was more, so I got two other books: The Growth Mindset Coach by Brock and Hundley and Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler

Like every beginning of the year, I got busy and the other books sat on my desk at home waiting patiently for me to read them. The opportunity came when I flew to Houston to visit my brother's family. Because I was highly engaged the 3 hour flight to Houston was plenty of time for me to read through the Coach book. I was able to begin to develop more of a research based background as to why a growth mindset matters physiologically. I also started thinking about how I could redo the sessions I was to conduct on Tuesday when I got back to school.

I was just as engaged on my flight back, and I used that time to get about halfway through Jo Boaler's book. I'm pretty sure the people next to me thought I was cray for all the "Woah!", "No Way!" "Really!" and, "I've been teaching math wrong this whole time," comments that kept popping out of me. With an even bigger research base, I came up with a revised plan for my original session and my follow up session, and I was eager (almost annoyingly so) to share my new knowledge with my coworkers.

My first session on Tuesday went really well, and I received a lot of positive feedback. It truly was interesting to see my colleagues struggle with growth mindset activities because so many of us tend to have a fixed mindset. I blame the educational culture for this. We do not value mistakes and growth opportunities. We are evaluated on one score, one test, one day.... mistakes are bad. Perfect tests are valued... they're the gold standard. But I now understand that perfect tests are the one way that your brain will never, ever grow. 

As I read on the plane and listened to people share during my sessions, my thoughts wandered back to the students my district has lost in the last few months for a variety of reasons. Kids who, based on our recent suicide training, had all the preventative factors in their back pockets. They shouldn't have become a statistic. But they did. I can't help feeling like we as an educational system had something to do with that. The pressure to be perfect. The pressure to not make mistakes. Focusing on things they aren't good at. Keeping them from things they want to be part of to practice their weaknesses. We're cultivating the worst of a fixed mindset, and I can't help feeling like that has to be part of the reason some of our kids make the choices they make.

I have made a three year commitment to this position. If I can make even a small dent in the systemic problem of creating fixed mindsets in our kids, and if I can make a positive change to help my students develop a growth mindset, then these three years will be the most successful of my career.

To the Lady at the Gym

Dear Lady at the Gym,

I thought you looked familiar, but that's not why I waved to you. I was just waiting for somebody to reply to my text, so I waved for you to cross so you didn't wait for me unnecessarily. Honestly, I was a little shocked when you walked up to my car, but like I said, I thought you looked familiar. I figured you were coming to ask, "Are you Mrs. Bair?" and then I would see whose mom you were from one of my 19 years.

But you didn't.

You came over to my car and you said, "I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you and your transformation. I see how hard you are working, and you look fantastic. I remember you because I had kids at Rheems, so I remember you from when you taught there. You look incredible, and I just wanted to tell you that you need to keep up the great work. You are an inspiration." As you walked away you gave me two thumbs up and yelled a final, "Keep it up, you look great!"

I think I managed to squeak out a thank you. At least I hope I did. No stranger has ever said anything like that to me, and I think I was a little bit in shock.

I haven't had the chance to see you again during a workout, but if I do, I hope I'll have the courage to come up and talk to you. I really want to tell you what an impact your words had on me. I think I always feel like my friends HAVE to tell me they are proud of me. They HAVE to be positive and supportive because it's what friends do when you're trying really hard. But you..... there was no mandate for you to walk over to my car and say those words.

But you did.

And I don't think I'll ever be able to put into words how much you inspired and encouraged me. How much you made me want to keep going and to keep making good choices.

So thank you. Thank you, Former Rheems Mom who saw me at the gym. Your words have made a permanent impact on me, and hopefully I can do them justice.


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!