Saturday, October 14, 2017

This is Probably the Shortest Blog Post Ever, But...

I just have to share this...I subscribed to a stock photo membership, and did a search for pictures featuring "teachers collaborating."  Also tried "teachers meeting."  What I found was fascinating!  The only pictures I found were the ones below. Notice that they didn't even have a frame of reference or an image for this idea! What do you notice about the pictures they did offer?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Fire Starters

So, a friend recommended that I check out an online community of entrepreneurs, and as a budding teacherpreneur I figured I'd better listen.  Decided to join, and  last week they had a fascinating thread going where someone asked for names of members' favorite entrepreneurship influencers.  I was pleased to see that some of the people I've started following were on the list--but so were many more whose names I'd never heard!  I'm sharing their list here because I suspect there are readers of this blog who may be having the itch to do more and expand their territory, as well, but may not be aware of all this inspiring work out there.  I am excited to be able to explore these names...and would love to know from you--are any of these your favorites, too? 

An Inexhaustive List of Influencers We May Need to Know

  • Seth Godin
  • Jill Stanton
  • Ryan Holiday
  • Ramit Sethi
  • Bushra Azhar
  • Kerwin Rae
  • Gary Vaynerchuck
  • Pat Flynn
  • Patrick bet David
  • Amy Portferfield
  • Grant Cardone
  • Melissa Pharr
  • Daymond John
  • Lori Greiner
  • Chalene Johnson
  • Nicole Walkters
  • Ryan Blair
  • Marie Forleo
  • Simon Sinek
  • Noah Kagan
  • Neil Patel
  • Courtney Foster-Donahue
  • Melyssa Griffin 
*Please note: I have not vetted each of these names and cannot speak for all of them.  Some, I can.  But in case anyone's content is out there, just know that they're not being endorsed here, just listed. :-) 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

...I'll Be Your Best Friend!

The Cost of Friendship?

Almost daily in my home life, I hear a negotiation going on between the preschoolers I'm privileged to parent.  It sounds something like this: "If you give me that (or go with me, or let me go first), I'll be your best friend!" Even beyond the sing-song-y, self-serving feel behind this refrain, something jumps out at me.  I see a metaphor.  

Schoolhouse Talk

I fear that in education, our unspoken social code will ruin us if we don't address it. The code goes like this: "If I like you, and we've got relationship, it's impolite, gauche, even, to push your thinking regarding the work you do for children."  "Really?" some would say? Really.  It's no different from a good old boy or crony network in any other field.  When we build collegial relationships with colleagues, in many camps it is quietly expected that being "for" our colleagues includes never broaching hard subjects about things like:
  • how they treat students
  • work ethic/mutual accountability for the work
  • keeping promises & carrying weight for the team
...and all manner of matters that humans  in working relationships work through. 

I want to submit to you, friends, we, almost more than other people, should give ourselves a different standard.  Make it our expectation and culture that we'll be courageous enough to have these conversations, respectfully.  The life outcomes of children are at stake.  It's not about adult comfort--it's about us constantly being in a state of improvement for our own sake and theirs. 

Continuous Improvement

In Japan, the business model of kaizen, or continual improvement, was what allowed the nation to develop cars and technology so excellent that they excelled right on past American businesses that settled in their comfort zones and rested on their pre-war laurels.  What if American education had adopted a continuous improvement stance 30 years ago? Where would we be today?

The book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything tells of the drastic drops in hospital deaths which occurred in spaces where staff members were trained to have hard conversations.  Prior to the training, staff would see doctors treat patients without washing their hands, for example, but be afraid to speak up.  The culture of complicity was causing them not to say things that could literally save patients' lives.  But the knowledge they lacked--and what their more powerful colleagues knew but ignored--was hurting someone. Once they learned that liking and respecting colleagues was not mutually exclusive with holding them accountable, things changed.  THIS is what I think education can do!  And it starts with creating our own language.  Stay tuned, because this is on my constant radar, and of course I will share as I hear more and more some of what that language should be...

Love & light,

Monday, September 4, 2017

Our Moses Moment

In the Old Testament book of Exodus (chapter 18), Moses was trying to manage several thousands of people--ensuring justice for their legal needs, tending to their spiritual needs, establishing and administrating government for their daily needs--and keeping track of the twists was exhausting.  Managing a classroom of 30 can feel this way--I can only imagine what it felt like with that  many people. Anyway, his father-in-law, Jethro, observed what an impossible task this was and had heard a strategy from God. He told Moses, "Why are you laboring at this morning till night? What you’re doing is not good.  You and the people will wear out this way, because it’s too much for you alone. Let me help you set up a system for sharing some of this responsibility..." It's the first place where we see delegation explicitly being taught in the Bible.  He was counseled to choose a set number of people to do specific tasks, and to assign the work to them. But now, how about the enormity of the teaching task in public schools (and  in most schools, I suspect)? Today we would call what Jethro was teaching him distributed leadership.
I want to put this in big, bold letters: I believe that in this day and time, only distributed leadership will allow public schooling to stand. The needs are just so great, and the limitations of one human mind so real, that we can't possibly move forward or grow without a model that makes room for leadership to arise from the ground up in all kinds of ways. Right now, I am learning first-hand about this--and it is fascinating.

In my building, there is a grassroots work emerging, where a small group of staff members “accidentally” discovered our common love of strategy and problem-solving around school culture.  Our principal has brilliantly opened the door to this personal ownership of the school’s work.  She has given the green light to creating our committee, securing funding to pay many of us to work over the summer.  She let us plan the opening day of school meeting for staff, in which we arrived at homegrown solutions affecting us all.

Essentially, the existing systems for school operations, particularly in urban centers, have holes in them.  If we wait for our school district to create solutions that make our buildings run safely, keep employee morale high, and encourage student/family ownership over learning, it will be a very long wait.  High-needs schools like ours just look different from most other buildings in our district. This is no one’s fault, but it absolutely points up the need for differentiation.  In light of these unique needs, we have two choices: wait to be saved, or throw our own capes on!

Our Jethro is Here

It is literally, physically impossible for one person to do all that a public school like ours requires.  This year we are realizing that we must own this work in order to have the school culture we envision. Our core group has learned that “owning” the work does not look like signing our names to lists of required committee choices--or at least not in this case, since the choices do not exist.  We literally stumbled upon our work, but now recognize that it need not be a stumble.  We are coming to believe it may be as simple as a group of similarly invigorated folks coming together to find solutions...and creating an ongoing shared commitment to it.  This is truly grass roots delegation, in that it is self-appointed, -realized and -driven.  It can only work when the particular work happens to also advance the goals of the administrator and higher administration, of what if, even beyond our small group, across our building we could find those sweet spots where the self-designed and the organically necessary intersect? This is our new question.

This is our Moses moment, friends.  At least in public education. More and more, I’m realizing that to spread the leadership load in ways like this is the only thing that will help us survive in the years to come.  This term “distributed leadership” literally brings to my mind a picture of a band of hard-working ants, shouldering something way bigger than they should be able to carry, using the power of synergy.  That image strikes awe in me even just imagining it.  But this is where we are.  For us in our building, it is an exciting moment, because along with our self-directedness comes a shift in each individual’s professional development focus.  When you are conducting your own “action research”, you seek your own development opportunities, your own networking ties, your own ‘tribe’ beyond your borders.  

Our current quest is to train with Vital Smarts, in its Influencer program.  If we find the value there that we think we will, it will have scored 4 times:  directly impacting our work in the building; building our professional skill set; making connections beyond education; and boosting our people skills to the benefit of even personal and family life. What a win!  Some of us are even interested in certification after the initial training.  Who knows where we’ll go from there!  Who knows what industries we’ll connect with, whose work will fascinate us or who we may inspire.  Our world will grow bigger, our students and families will directly benefit, we can help our school district shine, and our job satisfaction will automatically stay high. Who doesn’t want something like this? And we want it for ALL of our colleagues, as each finds his or her “thing”--and runs with it!

Moses moment, indeed.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Language is All!

As a person who desires high-level proficiency in communication, more and more I realize the incredible learning lab that parenting two pre-schoolers is for me. I am taking notes and trying not to miss any of the lessons.  As I will continue to share, I believe with all of my heart that the inhabitants of school spaces need to be trained in talking with one another just as deliberately as we are trained to teach content.  After all, much of the work that we want schools to accomplish is either buoyed or stymied by grown folks' ability to have real conversations with one another about our work. I think that not only can book studies and professional trainings like Crucial Conversations help us, but that we also need language to help us navigate hard conversations.   In a recent post I shared some language that I like about sifting through assumptions.  As words come to me, I will be sharing them here to hopefully help someone else.  Eventually I realize I probably need to collect the language snippets I hear in my head and try out on my colleagues and kids, and put them in a book! But for now, here they are.

This past Saturday, as I was talking to my 4-1/2-year-old, he was trying to use his incredible gift of gab to convince me to do something I wasn't about to.  It was exhausting. I want both of my babies to know how to advocate for themselves--but I also want them to know when it's truly time to hush, to listen and say okay.  So this is the language I used, and I will continue to use it even with adults:

"Time-out.  What I need to hear from you right now, and in times like this, is..."

This gave us a few potent points of connection and re-framing:

"Time-out..."  This, with my time-out hand signals, let it be known that our dialogue was heading off-track and we needed to just stop to give our attention to its direction.

"What I need to hear from you..." I'm letting it be known the kind of response that will get the most favor and be the most beneficial for me and for him, and which is likely land us in a good place.  By definition, it also helps define what the right response is NOT.  This also helps my child, or my listener, to develop a lens for empathy.  Looking through my eyes, which they may not have considered trying, could shed some new light on our discussion.  Granted, my son is not my equal, but a "subordinate"; it may not work quite the same with equals.  I think that it can easily work with equals, however, when they have both expressed a desire to do what helps the other to be their best.  It suggests interdependence, trust, connection, accountability.

"[What I need to hear from you] right now, and in times like this..."
If my child is busy trying to push a point and is missing the fact that we are in a critical moment, he may not understand that his handling of it can make our break his outcome.  I'm narrowing down the story line and bringing our focus to this small moment to shine a spotlight there.

"[What I need to hear from you] right now, and in times like this..."
I'm giving my child a clear road map for reading the signals in different situations.  I want him to understand that you can generalize similar situations and surmise that the approach I'm about to share will work in all similar situations--at least where I'm concerned.

Once the phrase came together in my mind, I literally used it about 4 times that day.  Every time, it connected.  It made sense.  It cut down on the noise created by extra words, by mommy frustration, or by kid chatter.  And I look forward to trying it out in the professional world and in my personal world of adults, when the time is right.
Love and light,

Monday, August 14, 2017

Conversations...Always Crucial

Though I have not read it all, one of my favorite books, at least in theory, :-) is Crucial Conversations (:Tools for Talking When Stakes are High) by Kerry Patterson, et. al.  In it, they talk about the power of having honest conversations in high-stakes situations, without alienating the participating members and in a way that gets results.  A tricky thing to do, without a doubt.  Most of us have not even considered that this is possible, let alone having been trained in it.   But I believe that these crucial conversations are key to the ability of adults in schools, to effect change for children.  More on this later.  But I wanted to share a piece that occurred to me in the past few days: two powerful language stems that could help people to work better together.

"I believe that you believe..."

What if we were able to get inside of the unspoken assumptions we have about how other people see the world? The way we talk to ourselves about what another person is doing has everything to do with what we believe that they believe.  What if we just put these things on the table?

My Style

Once people use tools like Strengths Finder and Myers Briggs to identify their differences in style, then what? I have seen many people who stop there, declaring that "This is just the way I am," or content to forever be a slave to their style. But what if we said these powerful words?

"These are the elements of my style and personality that I am willing to sacrifice or examine for the greater good..."

Wow! Can you imagine?  I'll leave you with that food for thought, for now.  But I'll keep sharing as dialogue stems come up that can help you, and me, in these very tough scenarios we all face...

Monday, August 7, 2017

Follow the Leader & Become a Reader

Do you want to explore and enjoy the power of oral language with young children in your life?  Even in informal and seemingly silly ways, we can position all students for success as readers and writers by tapping the power of spoken language.  If we are intentional, consistent and have fun, it does not have to be complicated.

A favorite game for my own pre-school children is to play Follow the Leader with me in the car.  We take turns being the leader giving singing sounds, making beats, singing word parts and generally using our voices to excite the rest of the car with our creativity.   Here are some of the powerful advantages of a simple game like this:

  • No-cost: You need no supplies for this game--no books, no CDs, no materials
  • Rhythm regulates the brain, according to brain-compatible research
  • You can start with a rhythmic book for a frame of reference--something like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
  • General musicality is fostered, while various musical concepts are covered in one setting, such as scatting (jazz), freestyle (rap) and general improvisation (all genres)
  • The game reinforces skills in:
    • listening
    • intonation
    • syllabication
    • letter sounds
    • following directions (and careful listening)
    • leading

I am a strong believer that if my children can manipulate sounds in a number of ways, and enjoy what they are doing, they will be primed for reading and writing with intentionality and effectiveness.  Can you imagine the power we could give the families of our least successful children if we can figure out how to get parents to do this? #gamechanger #orallanguagepower

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thank You, Ms. Kaye

A Parent's Place

I stood blinking, a silly smile feebly shielding the conflicting emotions I felt inside.   Me, Ms. Articulate, at a total loss for words. Holding onto my wiggly little one, smiling politely at Ms. Kaye, I did my best to corral my thoughts. At first they wouldn’t come at all; finally, thankfully, they did—though not with as much clarity of articulation as I’d hoped. Ms. Kaye, our wonderfully capable and loving home day care provider, had been caring for my two toddlers for the past 5 months. We (my son, now 4, daughter, now 3, my husband and I) were still fairly new to her.  She’d been highly recommended by a friend, who’d vouched for her patient disposition and character-building, inquiry-based learning environment.  She expressed genuine love for all her students, gave detailed feedback about students’ socio-emotional development, and incorporated authentic learning into all that she did. I was grateful beyond measure for her.   It’s just that I couldn’t shake the sense that she had little respect for me as a parent.
            Her statement really had been simple enough: “I wanted to let you know that this week I started potty training with Nyla. I’ve been putting her on the potty a few times a day—no big deal, just giving her the exposure so she gets used to it.  I find that if you wait too long with girls, it just gets harder. You’re welcome to join me and do the same thing at home.  I just wanted to let you know that this is what I’m doing here.”  As she spoke, the air seeped out of the room.  There was so much I wanted to say: “What?!  This, my second of two in the now-shut baby factory, and my only girl, to boot--and this is how I learn that you’ve chosen on your own to start potty training her? No conversation? No “we” plan, no permission to begin what for a mom and her daughter is a very beautiful, but fleeting, experience? Then I have to find out on a Friday that it’s been your project all week—but now you’re inviting me to join you in the process??”  But none of those words came.  Ms. Kaye’s declaration had rattled my every sensibility about the power of the parent and the sacredness of the moments that working moms miss.  Never mind that guilt; never mind the fact that Ms. Kaye was work-at-home mom who knew nothing of this life I lived, apparently, even after four kids of her own.  I respected and admired her choices.  But my plastic smile hid confusion--why it hadn’t occurred to her to respect me for the life I was living, this working mom grind?  In that moment, I felt all my hard-earned self-respect as a mother dancing shakily on a corny, unsure reply: “Granted, I’m new to this child care thing—but isn’t that something that’s usually a conversation with the parent before it’s begun?” I don’t even remember her answer, and I’m not even sure it mattered.  My chance to choose how and when this special rite of passage would commence was forever gone, and I had to deal with it.
            This wouldn’t be the only time that I’d felt undervalued and slighted by the way Ms. Kaye engaged me as a parent.   In another instance, Ms. Kaye had volunteered a report on our son’s progress, a pleasant recounting of his growth over the course of his first year working with her.   In her three-paragraph statement, the second and third paragraphs spoke glowingly of sonny having made great progress in social skills and emotional awareness, academics and as a future young leader, under her care. Unfortunately, my mind never made it past the first paragraph’s account: sad baseline data about how my son had entered her program without knowing his letters, colors or numbers.  By her assessment’s standards, before being graced with her golden touch, the kid knew nothing.  Yet more than the inaccuracy of this conclusion stung me—the presumptions packed the punch.  Nate had entered knowing plenty, and I was convinced that a sensitive assessment and observer would have discerned not only what he knew, but his advanced understanding in many areas.  However, in an all-or-nothing world, plenty is never enough.
            It was clear where this kid was headed.  From the start, he was highly verbally advanced with an abstract logic beyond his years, and had wowed adults since infancy with his level of perception, social ability and musical prowess.  His mother had been identified gifted in 2nd grade, and I’d seen the signs in him—but I also know the pros and cons of the gifted child’s experience.  I had deliberately chosen not to overly emphasize the typical parent track of academic fact acquisition with him.  Instead, in his first two years I had focused on non-academic skills—things like problem solving, conversational skills, reasoning, and treating others well.  I was exposing him to real-world learning and things like letter and colors, for sure—but just in a more context-imbedded way than friends I knew who followed the traditional flash card curriculum. His strong sense of memory and connections among ideas, I knew, would serve him quite well once I dove deeply into letter recognition and other academic content knowledge.  By the time he began to understand what his mind could truly do, his social-emotional maturity would be ready to match the academic knowledge that would no doubt come easily for him. What mattered more to me was that my perfectionistic, driven, sometimes bossy child have opportunities to practice character development that could give him a strong inner foundation.
Nate is the kid who now, at 4, knows his letters and their sounds, and writes many of them; he learns sight words easily, reads simple books with self-corrections and reading behaviors; helps me write messages; and uses numbers, colors and number sense in higher level ways. He can find 10 states on the U.S. map; creates music and is learning musical scales; is learning chess, and is advanced beyond his years in understanding and reasoning.  In our own fun ways, I had started working with him more explicitly on home academics when we moved him and his sister from their granny’s care to the home-based learning center.   These things were deliberately timed. Yet Ms. Kaye didn’t seem to realize this or recognize that I even had a plan that she maybe should tap into…nor did she realize, apparently, the extent of content knowledge my son brought to the table.  Why couldn’t Ms. Kaye see or acknowledge any of this?   The moment this question flooded my mind in a meaningful way, I realized that I owed Ms. Kaye a thank you.  She had uncovered something in me that I had never seen.
            I am an educator.  I have been teaching for 16 years—including my most recent five as a literacy specialist.  Currently I serve as an instructional coach with elementary teachers in a high-poverty environment.  I have had some amazing professional development opportunities, including National Board Certification.  I know a little bit about education.  But if even I have felt the sting of feeling underestimated as a parent, what might less confident parents experience in their children’s schools?  What must it be like to not be a parent educator who knows the teacher jargon, where to access “the research” and has knowledge of the major players in the education game?  How must it feel to have painful memories of one’s own experience with the institution of school, perhaps, and have no one giving you the benefit of the doubt or assuming you know more than you may let on?  I realized that everything I ever felt underappreciated about in my young children’s short experience in the care of this otherwise fabulous teacher, the parents I serve must have felt a thousand times over, in their public-school parenting journey.

The Ugly Truth

What I discovered about myself, thanks to Ms. Kaye, I did not like--but needed desperately to see. See, in America we have this strong meritocracy concept that penalizes those who have not for not having, and rewards those who already have for what they have.  I have participated in it.   And so, in this journey of constant growth and reflection, I realize that I owe many of my prior students’ parents an apology.  An apology for assumptions and for questions never asked…for benefits of the doubt not given and presumptions of best intent not applied. 
As I found myself pushing back against what seemed to be Ms. Kaye’s assumptions about my family, I realized that I probably have more in common with many of my students’ parents than I’d realized.  I was reminded that my natural default approach to people who expect little of me or think small of my abilities, is to resist the double-tax of having to work hard to prove wrong judgments I never deserved in the first place.  In other words, negative expectations of my core abilities and intentions have a reverse effect on the positive outcomes I display.  Once I perceived that Ms. Kaye saw little in me, I resisted letting on that there was much more to see.  This is much like the resistance we see in schools by students and families in my environment.  It’s not that I didn’t continue teaching my children at home and pushing towards that awesome vision of the balanced and respectful people I am shaping them to be.  It’s just that laboring under the cloud of low opinions, I find myself unable and indeed, unwilling, to try to impress Ms. Kaye.  I suspect that this is many parents’ subconscious story. 
            I have been taught that education is the great equalizer.  I have believed it to my core, and this idea continues to be a motivator and hope-builder.  Yet I realize on this end of things that so much about my stance towards social justice has been about my physical presence.  I thought that I realized how important it is for me to genuinely see myself as a partner with, an ally of, parents and to be clear that I am no better than them and express this in all the ways that I treat them.   Apparently, I had much more to learn.
As much as we as educators love and value the rescue narrative (which relies on an idea of us as the collective fount of knowledge), I'm now inclined to believe a more robust narrative not only exists, but could thrive, if we could embrace it.  The story I like to tell these days is built on a view of parents as powerful and admirable human beings.  What I believed was my due as a parent—a certain kind of respect and curiosity and opportunity to be acknowledged for my contribution, is what every parent deserves from those of us who educate.  What else are we doing if we can’t even begin with that basic right?  How discerning and skilled and motivational are we if we don’t know how to look beyond the deficits we see and find some strengths to draw on?  And so, this next school year I will begin with an entirely new set of questions on my lips for every parent, and I expect a new set of learnings to follow.     
What I realize now is that sometimes it’s not the outward expressions of respect and support that mean the most, but the internal attitudes or thought patterns.  I’m asking myself questions like, what does it communicate if the only time I ask questions of parents is when inquiring about assignments I’m giving or things I want done?  What message am I sending when my students never see me expressing the humility to let their family members teach me about who they are?  If I start our relationship by talking, and don’t first find some way to allow myself to be teachable, what does this say? Even with all my pedagogical knowledge, amassed over these years, how could I possibly be the expert on this child whom I didn’t birth, whose stories I don’t know and whose gifts and treasures I have yet to uncover? Even more telling, what if the child comes from a background, experience, reputation or demonstrated pattern of a seemingly bankrupt strengths account?  What level of expectation does that child get from me? Do the expectations of what is “typical” take over in my mind and even in a benevolent way; render me literally blind to what I can learn from that family?  I’ve had to unpack and unearth literally dozens of assumptions and questions in this process of identity exploration.  

The Conversation

I believe that some of the social disparities in the United States have been waiting for a long time to be addressed.  But in this hour when social justice questions loom above us in very painful and obvious ways, this conversation I’m having with myself is one I’ve committed to take further, in my daily work with students and families.   From now on, my very first conversation with any parent will be a chance for me to prove myself teachable, by asking questions that encourage families to share things that I should know.  I’ve narrowed down my wonderings to 5-10 major questions that I’m hoping will open conversations that can change the game.   As I examine my experience as a parent, overlapped with the life of a teacher, I want to share 5 major points of inquiry here that will guide my learning of students’ families:
o   Who is your child?
o   What hopes or plans do you have for him or her? 
o   How is your child most like you?
o   What’s something important you want your child to know about life?
o   Is there anything you want me to know about what life looks like outside of school that will help me understand or connect to your child?
From this year forward, no first contact with parents begins without some iteration of this theme…and I will purposely weave it into every conversation with every parent.   The questions themselves are not remarkable; for me it is the mindset that says, “These particular kinds of questions matter”, along with a truly compassionate and humble-curious response from the teacher, which seals the deal.
What if we all, we teachers, we content experts with loads to learn about the content of our students’ character, became curious seekers when it comes to our charges?    What if we embraced the truth that we are fibers in a bigger fabric of community, home, school and other institutions, and that with all there is to know in the world, we know only a piece of it? If our collective conscience would allow us to believe such a thing, it could take us to a place where we realize that our experiences as teachers at-large may be somewhat limited--that, as writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously notes, there is not one “single story” to be told. What if we truly slowed down to look for the gold nuggets in every child’s experience, and determined to believe something good or redeeming about every family?    This is where I want to live, and I can only thank Ms. Kaye for even showing me my need to find it.  We must find it.  We, after all, are “them.”                           

Saturday, February 4, 2017

All Boats Can Float Higher

Good to Great

If you are a teacher leader or instructional leader in your environment, you know the extremes that we often see in school buildings.  We all know teachers with great intentions, yet who lack the knowledge to run an orderly, productive classroom. In these rooms everyone has grown to expect chaos, and it is generally known that little learning takes place.  If such a teacher asked your advice on how to change this dynamic, it likely would not be hard to help.  Maybe you’d offer tweaks that could shift the relational dynamics or routines for the better, especially if employed at the start of the year.  You might advise that reflective collaboration with experienced peers, journaling, peer observations, mentoring and reflective videotaping can all help to see from an outsider’s lens what elements might be missing and shore up some knowledge gaps. But what if the teacher with the reputation for running a tight ship, whose presence is commanding enough to calm the most rogue behaviors and to keep order against the odds, wanted your thoughts on improvement?  How does this teacher improve classroom morale and academic outcomes? If asked how to upgrade the educational outcomes in these kinds of classrooms, where would we look?  These teachers’ charismatic blend of authority and structure create such a safe and predictable place to land for students that it’s easy to think they have arrived.  However, just like proficient and advanced students can often get overlooked in our classrooms, the “got it together” teacher could benefit from our attention, as well; these teachers both need and deserve to grow.  More importantly, their students deserve a thoughtful communal response to the teaching and learning in their rooms.

Classroom management matters. How we maintain order matters.  Beyond maintaining order, however, I contend that the next level we should always aim to improve is classroom engagement.  Where maintaining order is not our concern, we can refine our focus and look to the level of “plug in” that we see in our students.  In the “tight ship” classrooms, disengagement will likely not show up the same way it might in the "struggling" space.  It will not likely be an outburst.  It won’t be loud, disruptive talk with a neighbor…students dare not outwardly disrespect certain teachers, or draw attention to themselves for bucking a culture of order.  However, in a room where students quietly check out because pacing,  intentionality or relevance of instruction need tweaking, they will experience some of the same learning gaps as in the challenging classroom.  How can we help bridge the gaps?

Shifting, Together 

I believe that many of us can be teacher leaders in our environments who help to build reflective communities of practice, touching these teachers’ classrooms and their students’ learning.  In service of instructional goals, teacher-based teams can engage in collective classroom “research” around student engagement, videotaping lessons and analyzing them for things like wait time, body language, students’ displays of quiet distraction, level of participation in discussion, etc.  Teachers can be led to explore issues like lesson pacing, number of active participants in a given lesson, rigor of questioning, student enthusiasm and level of teacher-directedness versus student initiative.   In addition, even quick check-ins with students themselves after some lessons can be instructive.  “What was your favorite part of this lesson?  What questions did you have at the start of this lesson? What answers do you have to those questions, or what new questions have emerged?  How would you explain to someone else what you learned in this lesson?” Informal assessments like these can automatically tie in to teacher planning and refinement of practice. 

Creating communities where teachers reflect on practice in this way has the potential to illuminate places where teachers achieve compliance, but without true student investment.  It also has the added benefit of coaxing teachers towards the ongoing reflective stance that motivates one to pursue a process like National Board Certification.  The process itself can serve as both catalyst for and affirmation of ongoing refinement.   Students who respect a teacher too much to disrupt should still be respected in turn by a teacher with the courage and presence of mind to consider their needs carefully and discover whether instruction is addressing those needs.

Some Critical Questions

  • What were the time markers between places of shift or transition in this lesson or the activities required?  
  • What is the “climax” of this lesson?
  •  Where did you see the students most piqued in their curiosity or engagement?  
  • How much physical movement or manipulation did this lesson require? 
  • Where stamina was needed, how did students display or not display this?
  •  If not engaged with stamina, what did they do instead? Did students voluntarily take on an inquiry stance in a certain part of this lesson? What preceded this? 
  •  Did the lesson shift at some point from teacher-directed to student-led? 
  • Did we see any place where students were quietly complying but not plugging in to the task, instruction or assignment? 
  • Did you count any instances of the teacher asking a question and then having to answer it? If so, how many times did this happen?
  •  Did you observe ‘cold calling’ practices that seemed to keep students on their toes? 
  • What evidence do we have that students’ light bulbs were clicking?  
  • What new learning do students demonstrate?

These kinds of look-fors can invigorate teaching that may be well-intenti
oned but in need of an upgrade in well-managed classrooms. 

Assuming that great classroom management is equal to great teaching is similar to assuming that those who live in an orderly home must automatically be well-loved and well-fed. The two are related, but not at all equal.  If we are to maintain environments that remain stimulating for the students of teachers with great classroom management, we have to give them the challenge of always looking into the ways that those students interact with their learning.  This ensures that all boats get the opportunity to float to their highest potential, and that no one is left behind in our quest for the best. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

20 Meaningful Ways to Teach Letters

The Case for Letters That Connect

Remember the father in the movie "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding"* who thought that all ailments big and small could be cured with Windex? It's kind of like how many of us grew up learning about reading. "Sound it out" was our Windex! Stumped on the word said?  Just sound it out! Don't understand the overall meaning of a passage? Sound it out! Your teacher asking why a character made that particular choice, and how you know it even though it was never said outright? Sound it out!  :-)  Obviously, this can't take us very far in our holistic understanding as readers.  But sometimes we're similarly limited in our teaching of letters, in my opinion. I understand the absolute power of the ABC Song for its ease and permanence in young kids' memories. I also love flash cards and many of the other things we do to get letter knowledge to stick.  It's just that, as a Reading Recovery trained educator, I've been forever spoiled to the idea of isolated knowledge that doesn't connect to much. I've seen some children in the school setting who lack early literacy experiences and really have a hard time understanding what letters mean, therefore learning their labels means little to them.  So when it came time to teach my own young children about the role of letters in understanding the world, I knew I wanted more contextualized practice for them. Naming the letters is great!  Knowing what to do with them is even better.  Here, I'll share a list of 20 things parents and teachers can do to make letter learning practical and memorable.  This list is not exhaustive, but hopefully it is helpful.

[*Disclaimer:  In my humble opinion, "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding" was full of stereotypes and problematic in some important ways.  That one scene, however, stuck out at me as a truly funny one, as every family has a catch-all remedy story like that one...]

20 Meaningful Ways to Teach Letters

  • Create a word wall with names of people the child knows, including self.  Add environmental print images as their knowledge increases
  • I spy something that starts with the first letter...
  • Label things around the space with a word that highlights the first letter. Use card stock or craft store foam with a hot glue gun to attach a magnetic first letter and write the rest of word in bold marker.
  • Magazine hunt--choose a letter to focus on.  Go through children's or grown-up magazines searching for items that begin with that letter
  • Choose a child's favorite song and sing the first word of the first line.  Identify which letter/sound that line starts with
  • Find short words to say slowly and spell aloud
  • Grocery store or environmental print quiz: "Quick: Which letter is this? Capital or lowercase?"
  • Study the formation of a certain letter.  Give the child and pretzel and ask him or her to bite the shape of the letter from that pretzel.
  • Ask your child to help you write small words in your grocery list, saying the sounds slowly.  Better yet, choose one real-life writing task a day and have them "help" you, no matter what level of help they can really give, where they can help hold your hand while you say out loud the sounds and letters of words you want to write.  Their age will determine how much real help they give, of course...but there is lots of modeling and learning going on.
  • When they ask what's for lunch or dinner, tell them the first letter of the dish and make them guess.  As they gain proficiency with this, have them give the clues.
  • Attach adhesive white board or chalk board surface to a wall and give the little ones practice making the formation of letters in big motor movements. 
  • Use sidewalk chalk outside and make large letters that your child can trace by walking over them, in the correct formation.
  • Read lots of ABC books (there are so many cool ones out, like the ones below!)

  • Invest in an alphabet rug.  During different times and activities, ask your kids to sit on a particular letter, makes a certain sound or starts someone's name.
  • Get an old school toy from Leap Frog or a similar toy--almost any will do! Some of my favorites: 
    • Leap Frog Alphabet Pal (can review names, sounds, or songs that begin with the first letter); Word Whammer (lets students spell short words); Tiggly Words (interactive letter and word practice); Light & Sound Phonics (practices sounds, word spelling, letter names, etc., in English & Spanish.)
  • Make your own alphabet soup (did you know they make alphabet pasta?) or buy the canned version.
  • Listen to a CD like this, where each verse/song begins with a letter of the alphabet.  You can learn the songs first, then ask your child which letter the song title starts with.  As they get more sophisticated and start to request certain songs, you can have them help you determine where to fast forward or rewind to based on what letter you're currently on. 
  • Buy some alphabet rubber stamps, and have fun creating short words with your child or finding letters to stamp them as fast as possible on the page.
  • Create letters out of Play-Doh, or use finger paint or another medium to create letter shapes.
  • When reading aloud to your child, ask them to predict certain elements of the story, then to predict how a word they gave you would start.

This list, again, is not exhaustive.  But these kinds of learnings strongly solidify the meaning of letters and their role in spoken/written communication for our little learners.  The more anchors for learning we give to our brains, the better.  Anchors aweigh!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The other day while purging old documents, I came across a list I had written in a PD meeting.    I am typing the list below.

Some Influences on Vulnerable Readers

  • interactions with text at home and in community
  • interactions with school and teachers
  • parent attitudes/habits regarding reading
  • racial identity and history
  • socio-economic reality
  • class identity
  • prior performance in school
  • pop culture
  • relationships to stronger readers
  • labels received/embraced regarding self as a reader
  • social policies (welfare, etc.)
  • education policies (No Child Left Behind, etc.)
  • general self-image
  • access to role models who are strong readers
  • access to technology
  • access to reading materials
  • class size
I think the presenter had asked us to come up with our own list of factors we thought affected vulnerable readers, and all of these are influences.  But I'm blogging about these today as a reminder of the influence that we as educators have on our students' experiences.  I thought it a great opportunity to put before literacy educators this question:  of the influences listed above, which ones do you see that you could directly impact in your students' lives?  In which areas can you activate your power in order to help shift some struggling reader's identity, starting now?