Thursday, March 27, 2014

Embracing and accommodating our differences

I broke my leg last week. Innocently enough, I was walking down my stairs in darkness to go find my headphones, so I could listen to some music. Why? Because I kept having the song, "Hail, Knight of the Woeful Countenance..." from Man of La Mancha run through my head - over and over and over. I figured a little music in my ears might drown out my over active mind. Unfortunately, my foot met up with a hand weight that rolled out from under me, causing all my weight to come crashing down on a folded up leg. Yep, broken fibula.

All of a sudden I'm a person with limited means to get around. I'm in pain; I can't drive; and I'm on crutches. I come to work when a family member can drop me off, and I go home when they can pick me up. A casual trip to another building in the district is out of the question. A trip to a place with stairs is practically impossible. Even a trip to a classroom in my own building is an onerous task, complicated if there are people in the hallways or doors to open along the way. (Unfortunately, I'm not a person of much upper body strength. Who knew?!)

As I get around in my semi-disabled state, I'm full of empathy for our students and their differing needs. Have you ever thought about - I mean really thought about:
  • High School students without cars?
  • Families without cars?
  • Students with physical ailments you can't see?
  • Students with fears?
  • Students who have limited English skills?
  • Students who have limited reading skills?
  • Students who haven't attended school regularly?
  • Students whose cultures are completely different than yours?
  • Students who work all evening to help support their families and don't get their homework done?
  • Students who were up all night with fussy siblings and are now sleepy?
  • Students who are hungry?
  • Students who learn differently than the way they're being taught?
  • Homes with no heat?
  • Homes with no water?
  • Families who don't understand the value of co-curricular activities?
My thoughts go on and on. Yes, I've thought of these things before, but can we really understand without having experienced them? We all judge our own worlds and the worlds of others through our own life lenses. It's easy to forget that we don't all have the same means, the same abilities, the same lifestyles, or the same backgrounds. We come together as diverse learners on personal journeys that we can only relate to if we build strong relationships and share who we really are with each other. Do students feel that comfortable with their teachers? Do teachers feel that comfortable with their students?

I broke my leg. My differences are readily seen, and I will experience those differences for a very short period of time. The same can't be said for many of our students. They need our empathy and our caring for as long as it takes as they journey through their own lives of living and learning. Let's never forget that.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Our Students Know They Didn't Measure Up

I recently applied for a promotion, was interviewed through two rounds of interviews, and found out today I didn't measure up. How does that feel? It's disappointing. It's embarrassing. It hurts. It makes you think about where you are now and how that's all changed because of the process. It makes you wonder why you wasted the time preparing or how you could have prepared differently.

My thoughts today, though, aren't so much about me. What I wonder is how do we provide our students, some of them barely past babyhood, to roll with the punches of growing and learning? How do we provide the tools for our students to prepare well for learning, to accomplish the learning, to alter the course when the learning comes slowly, and to keep on trying when it just feels like you just don't measure up?

What does a test score or a bad grade feel like to a student? How does it feel to set goals, to work hard towards the goals, and then come up short? Some would call it grit--You must just keep trying and trying and trying. You must ignore your classmates who seem to learn so much easier, who get the good grades, and accomplish their goals. You must keep your eye on the ball and continue to do whatever it takes to get there, right?

But what if you continue to fall short? What if your score on the data wall is always lower than what you want it to be? What if you work as hard as you know how on the assignments, and you still don't get the grades or results that you want? What if your test score indicates you probably won't be successful in college? What if you reach the point that you decide it's just not worth it, that there isn't any way you can do what they're asking you to do. What then?

I think we better be spending more time on the relational skills, learning skills, and coping skills of our students. It's not enough to work on standards, take tests, work on assignments, set goals, and prepare the journey to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Being a valuable person is so much more than that. It's what's in your heart. It's how you treat others. It's how you show pride in your school. It's continuing to learn, even though it's not your style of learning and the assessment doesn't really measure all the important variables of the learning.  It's knowing where to find the information you need and how to use the information to improve. It's loving the journey despite the fact that it rarely leads to where you initially wanted it to go.

What I posit is this:

We better be emphasizing the whole child and the development of the whole child, or we will continue to leave a whole lot of kids behind who need more than just the information we try to pour in their little minds.

I'm an adult who's weathered many experiences. I shall survive coming up short. However, are we really making sure our students have the tools to do the same?

Monday, March 10, 2014

EdCamp Iowa Was Full of Passion and Enthusiasm for Learning

On Saturday I had the wonderful opportunity to attend EdCamp Iowa which was simultaneously held in five different locations in Iowa. Just like last year, it was a wonderful learning opportunity as well as a chance to re-ignite the passion we all as educators have for teaching and learning.

I'm not sure words can do justice to the "unconference" scenario. You need to come and be a part of it to see the power of a group of adult learners directing their own learning and hashing out differences of opinion with caring and support for all involved.

The day starts with all gathering in one room to build the schedule. The leader, Scott McLeod at my location at BVU, projects the schedule spreadsheet to all of the attendees, and then volunteers take turns saying what topics they would like to facilitate sessions on. Here's the schedule we built at our site:

From standards-based grading, to recognizing the differences between students and supporting them, to imagining the perfect school, to looking at professional development in different ways, to teacher leadership compensation, to early literacy requirements; we chose what we wanted to focus on, and we hashed out both sides of many topics.

The beauty of days like Saturday's EdCamp comes from many things. First, this is a group of dedicated educators who volunteer to give up their Saturday to learn more and become better at their jobs. From administrators, to teachers, to techs, and even a few students, we had a gathering of folks who really believe in our educational system and who care about making it the best it can be. Second, EdCamps model new ways of learning that can be replicated in professional development in districts as well as in classrooms with our students. Third, controversial topics are not brushed under the carpet but faced head on and evaluated from all sides. You even see some minds being changed. And fourth, we get to hear what's working and isn't working in other districts. We learn from others' experiences.

As educators we must continue to look at the educational opportunities available for both ourselves and our students. We need to examine the best ways to implement the Iowa Core, to assess for understanding, to motivate our teachers to teach their best, and to ignite the passion in our students to learn what they need to know. A huge thank you to Abbey Green, Erin Nguyen, and Becky Brown for giving up their Saturday to attend. It's educators like you who are leading the charge to new ways of thinking and learning in our globally connected world.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

World Read Aloud Day

I got the most exciting Twitter direct message last evening. Erin Olson, who is a Technology Integrationist at Prairie Lakes AEA, had a last minute reading partner, NASA Goddard, looking for a class to Skype with. The chance for our students to Skype with NASA folks? Yes, please! While holding one phone with Erin's texts, I grabbed my other phone and started texting one of the teachers I knew I could probably still reach at school at 6:00 at night and who would be willing to go with the flow and change what was going on in her classroom even with such short notice, and Jacquie Drey said, "Yes, please!"

What a wonderful opportunity for some of our 4th grade students, both Mrs. Drey's and Ms. Fisher's. Karen Fox, a physicist and heliophysics writer, and Aries Keck, the social media team lead, not only read from their own book, Einstein A to Z, but they also answered student questions. They shared what they were personally reading with the students and told them to keep reading all kinds of different books. They told them to not be afraid to contact people in different professions or authors of books they really like, because those people really like to hear from students who are interested in the same things they are. They emphasized the importance of the network of people you connect with. You never know how they might even influence your chances at a new job someday. Then they encouraged the students to go to, to see all the wonderful resources there, including rockets taking off!

It was just a wonderful thirty minutes of sharing a love of science, reading, and learning.

Across the street at the Middle School, Caitlin Buchholtz's students Skyped with Denise Krebs, an American teacher who is now teaching kindergartener's in Bahrain. With a 14 hour time difference, Mrs. Krebs read two books to some of our 5th grade students.

Caitlin writes:

We discussed the characters' feelings & actions in the first book and talked about the lesson we could learn from the 2nd. The 2nd book was about a child's actions in Bahrain. A few students shared connections they made with the stories & also with Denise. Denise began by answering some questions we had for her. Some of them were: What languages do your students speak? What languages does she teach? What does school look like and how long is school where they are? Bahrain is a small island country by the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, & Iran. The students were able to make great connections to her moving, language barriers, learning languages, and also the characters' situations in the story.

Thanks so much to the readers from NASA and Bahrain, to Erin Olson who made arrangements, to the teachers who participated, and especially to the students who asked such great questions. What a great experience! What a great way to show our students how much learning there is to be shared not only within the school walls but also without! Twitter was lit up with all the players involved live feeding the two events, and there were many more tweeps who passed on the good news.











Saturday, March 1, 2014

We Must Engage Our Students

I just finished re-reading Dave Burgess' book, Teach Like a PIRATE. It was published a couple of years ago, and it is one of my favorite books about teaching. Rather than a focus on generalized standards or district-wide instructional strategies (which are also important), Dave's focus is on what each teacher and student individually brings to the classroom. He emphasizes the importance of the relationships we build with our students.

His premise is that we as teachers need to create an environment that our students want to be a part of. We do this by using our creativity to create lessons that actively engage our students in learning. We make our classrooms so appealing that our students wouldn't think of being absent, and since they are there and engaged, we are teaching them what they need to know. How do we do that? To get the full picture you need to read the book!

However, I can give you a taste to entice you.

First, we must let our passion show - our passion for our subject matter and our passion for teaching, as well as using the passions we have in our personal lives as ways to relate to and hook our students. Second, we must immerse ourselves in our teaching. Dave's example is the difference between the swimming coach who coaches with words from the side of the pool and the coach who gets in the water and demonstrates and actually helps with the students' strokes. Third, we must develop positive relationships with each of our students. We must really get to know them as people, not just as subordinate students. Fourth, we must ask ourselves the right questions to determine the very best ways to teach what it is we're teaching. Fifth, we must transform our content. We must show how what our students are learning will be valuable and relevant to their lives. We must make connections between the learning and the real world. Finally, we must be enthusiastic in our classrooms. There is no place for any less than our very best for every class, every day.

Dave had my attention immediately because of two things.
  1. He began his theories about teaching with passion and ended with enthusiasm. I agree with Dave: Give me teachers with those two traits, and I can help them become better teachers.
  2. He groused at people who said that unlike themselves, it was easy for him, because he was a creative person. ARGH! How many times have people said to me that integrating technology was easy for me, because I am a techie person? ARGH! First, that belittles the years of work and learning that each of us have invested to get to the place that what we do looks inborn and easy. Second, what a convenient excuse to not do the work that it takes to become a better teacher.
I'm not going to say anymore, because I want you to read the book. I want you to go see Dave's sessions if you ever happen to be at a conference where he is presenting. You'll know by the pirate costume. I've seen it!

Dave Burgess validates my belief that we must do whatever it takes to increase student learning. It's our job. Yes, you will find his methods over the top. However, by seeing teaching through the eyes of someone who is willing to go over the top, we are able to honestly examine our own techniques in the classroom. Only then can we determine how we can bring our A-Game to school every day and help our students do the same.