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.

Sincerely,
Becky

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.