Scratch the Itch

I have a love/dislike relationship with running. I love taking to the road and feeling the wind on my face. I especially love running during the season of autumn. I dislike running on the treadmill during winter and I dislike the hills that make my knees hurt. Recently, I have been feeling the itch to try something new.

Hiking is not something I thought I would be excited about. When I think of hiking I think of the Alps, walking sticks and backpacks. I think of absorbing nature, slooooowly. Slow doesn’t appeal to me. I am not a fast runner, but I love speed. Would hiking satisfy this need?

This past weekend I decided to hike a trail near my home. Mt. Tammany is a trail that appealed to me because of the views I had heard about from others. There are two scenic overlooks on the “red dot” trail. When I researched the hike, I saw it was a moderate hike with a steep incline and an elevation of over 1,400 feet. I’ve run many miles, so therefore, I felt I could do this.

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I set out on a sunny, but cool autumn morning. I was surprised how many other hikers were there mapping out their hike, checking their backpacks, and getting their walking sticks ready. I felt sort of foolish at first, looking for the “red dots” on the trees and rocks. As I began, I kept hearing this annoying yodeler from the Price is Right game “Cliff Hangers”. How did this pop into my head?
Up and up I went. I felt good at first, but a bit later I began to tire. How many more boulder stairs do I have to climb? They all began to look the same. Other hikers were passing me, “Good morning!” they cheerfully  said. “Morning” I said back to them out of breath. I began to count my steps and rest after 20.
Finally, I reached the first look out. It was so worth the grueling hike. I felt victorious and this victory fueled my energy to climb to the next look out.


I was on such a high & rush from the view, I set off for the top of Mt. Tammany. I was pumped! I can do this!

img_1495Higher and higher I climbed eager to get to the top.

But then… I began to lose steam once again.

The boulders looked the same.

The hiker I had said “good morning” to earlier, lapped me!

“Hey you’re almost there!”, he cheered.

“Did you just lap me?” I asked in disbelief.

He smiled an easy smile.

What did he mean almost?

 

I kept looking for the bright blue sky, knowing that would mark the closeness of the lookout. So many doubts swirled in my head. Maybe hiking isn’t for me. Why did I think I could do this? I am so out of my league! Should I turn around? Yes, sadly, I had even thought of going back. I am not a quitter. I have never quit anything (or backed down from a dare) in my life! It seemed like forever before I found that blue sky. Once I did, I crawled, on hands and knees, to see the view.

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I sat there admiring the view for quite some time. This hike  provided an opportunity for me to reflect and come to terms with a few things. I thought about my life, family and my passion. I thought about the similarities between this journey  and teaching.

At the base of the mountain, I see complacent conviction. I see teachers who have a stride and pace they love. They have lessons and units that they’re comfortable with. They are not interested in change and they don’t climb mountains. They do not scratch the itch.

Some teachers at the base will want to scratch that itch of change. They don’t ask for permission. They start off excited for a new adventure, when difficulty causes a bump in the road, they will question themselves and be filled with doubt. This is such a critical point. Without encouragement and support from colleagues and administration, some teachers will go back to the base of the mountain, longing for that familiar stomping ground. Only a few will persevere through. These teachers are educational pioneers, true leaders.  They are never stagnant. They don’t ask, they do.

What will you do when the itch of change calls on you? Will you scratch that itch? Will you take that risk? Will you see it through? As for me, well …I will be looking for another trail and mountain to hike. I suppose, a mountain that can induce a modesty in me …and really kick my ass!

The Importance of Building Bridges

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Directions were given. Materials were handed out. I walked quietly as to not disturb them.

Our learners were working in groups. They had numbered materials and images of various bridges. Their task sounded simple; create a bridge connecting 2 tables in the room.

Some groups began brainstorming ideas, other groups began construction immediately. There was one group…the second grade/third grade group…who had questions. I proceeded to assist.

Can we build from the floor up?

No.

Can we use pre-existing structures?

No.

Does it have to be a certain length?

No.

What if we run out of materials, can we have more?

No.

Can we choose more than one bridge design and blend them together?

Sure.

Is there a weight requirement?

Yes.

“We’re done!” I hear from across the room. I walk over to see their bridge. This group of fourth grade boys used 2 sheets of paper taped together to reach the other table, no support of any kind underneath. They mentioned it was “pavement”. I noticed the group of boys fooling around as I examined it. How would you lay the pavement down if there is nothing, not even land, to support it? I asked. They looked at each other, unsure of how to answer. “Keep thinking my friends”,  I said.

I proceeded to the fifth grade group which consisted of all boys. These boys partnered up within the group. Unlike the fourth grade group, the two pairs seemed confident. Each pair were discussing ideas and occasionally would share info with the others . They constructed a rope and wood (popsicle stick) bridge. The bridge seemed well constructed but the group had difficulty deciding how to attach it securely to the ends of each table. They decided on tape,  one piece of scotch tape at each end. They asked for the weights to see how they did. The rope and wood bridge held one weight. However, when a second was added it fell between the center of the two tables.”Don’t be discouraged, you all showed great thinking, keep working on it”, I said.

I watched my second and third grade girls work on their woven truss bridge. They used popsicle sticks for the base, that spanned the length of two tables. They wove Wikki sticks…like a woven basket… and attached them to the sides. “I think we need to add arches underneath for more support” one student said. “If this was a real bridge how would they know how much it would hold?”  another student asked. “They probably would just drive cars over it to make sure”, another answered. “Nah, I think they use some sort of math to figure it out” someone else said matter of factly. “How could we make sure this bridge stays in place? Tape isn’t strong enough for this!”, a member chimed in.

This second-third grade group does not ask for assistance. They do not rush. They are on the floor, on the table, upside down and viewing their bridge from every angle. They were thinking out loud, experimenting and trying various ideas. They were accepting of ideas and willing to take risks. They discussed and talked throughout.

As I observe these groups, I can’t help but think of the different approaches each group took. I can’t help but think how, as teachers, we can fall into similar groupings. Some teachers will rush just to be the first to try out the latest idea or buzz word. These teachers hardly ever collaborate, only because they see collaboration as competition, they may also feel intimidated by others. Inevitably, they will also have to back track and reteach alone. Other teachers will construct and execute good solid lessons with a partner. Their lessons are student centered and teacher driven, but they may have missed the target on an area or two. Two is better than one mentality can bring success as well as oversights. Other teachers will work together as a team to examine all avenues and ensure success. They communicate and share ideas; they take risks and work through problems. Most importantly they continue to question it all, seeking answers together.

I’ve been apart of these groups during my career in education. I’ve been on amazing teams. Teams that worked together, each of us playing a pivotal role in our grade level’s success. I’ve partnered with another teacher. This partnership of helping and guiding each other through new curricula, a new frontier. This partnership can be non threatening, simple and so powerful.  I’ve also worked alone, not by choice. I worked alone because others did not feel the need to progress or to seek change. Choosing to abide by the status quo. This isolation is the most difficult to bear. I often wonder why teachers would want it this way.

If there is something I believe in when it comes to collaboration, I believe in this…

“The greatest resource that teachers have, are other teachers”

 

But sadly, teamwork and collaboration are not commonly found in schools. What keeps teachers from supporting their team and being a team player? Building a team based culture requires administration to set aside time and emphasize the importance of teacher teamwork instead of simply suggesting that it occur on its own. These meaningful conversations can open doors for sharing, for encouragement and insights while establishing the empathy that drives all great schools. Teamwork should not be optional.

With all the change that teachers are implementing in their classrooms, isn’t now the time to increase collaboration opportunities, be they formal or informal?  Does your school make space for teachers to engage in deep conversations about teaching and learning? Where and when do your best conversations with colleagues take place? I think the time has come to build bridges between teachers to strengthen their teams. How else can our students use us as their support structure?

Grow Their Brain

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How do you grow a brain? It’s Saturday morning and I’m deep in thought. I’m revising a growth mindset unit for the following week. After 18 years, I still begrudgingly work on Saturdays. Why is it that teachers don’t like to write lesson plans, but like to be prepared?

This week was the kick off to our Growth Mindset unit.  This inquiry based mini unit focuses on praise, empathy, grit, risk taking, reflection and feedback. It also includes collaborative projects and team building activities.  My learners become familiar with Kid President Pep Talk videos and his words of wisdom and encouragement. It will also be the foundation for our creativity and innovation (creativation) sessions for George Couros‘, The Innovator’s Mindset Online Course #IMMOOC.

Why begin our innovation course with Growth Mindset?

Well, I think about a fixed mindset and growth mindset this way: If teachers or learners subscribe to a common belief that things are good…right here, right now…and not progress forward in any way, the result will be, okay at best (fixed mindset). This way of thinking will most likely not produce anything innovative. If teachers and learners think freely, embrace change (rather than the status quo) they are more likely to create environments that produce risk taking and creative solutions. In other words, a growth mindset will lead to innovative solutions.

When it comes to innovation, I feel a fixed mindset will squash creativity. If my gifted and talented learners believe their innate skills and their current level of intelligence is what helps them succeed, they will fail to recognize the power of continuous learning. They will fail to recognize what they may become.

Can we change a learner’s mindset? How can we best cultivate, nurture and operate a growth mindset within our classroom of learners to drive innovation?

I enjoy constructing units of study. My previous school district did not have a “textbook series” for Language Arts, Social Studies, or Math, when I first started teaching 1st grade, 15 years ago. Our lessons reflected best practices, our learners interests, and each individual teacher’s unique style. They were authentic and real. It’s easy to ditch a textbook, when you never relied on one.

This Growth Mindset unit is called “Growing Our Brain” and it begins with a mini lesson which focuses on the impact of praise. We discuss what praise is, why we give it, what phrases we’ve heard, and how it feels when we work hard on something and then DON’T receive praise. You know, you put your blood, sweat and tears into a project and your work is over looked. OUCH.

As we were discussing this, the conversation turned towards failure and how our learners deal with it. So, I shared two quotes about failure, one from Michael Jordan and one from Thomas Alva Edison. I asked my learners to analyze and interpret these quotes. Some wrote down their ideas, others struck up a conversation. When their responses began to sound similar (they’re about not giving up); I asked them to go deeper, and use their critical thinking skills. I waited patiently. Then, a learner’s profound statement came. He said…

“If we keep trying, and keep trying, and don’t stop trying then we don’t fail. We don’t fail because we’re still trying…we’re still working it out! Failure is when we stop, when we give up. We gotta keep going. Don’t let failure win.”

~ 3rd Grade learner, G&T, Commonwealth Charter Academy

Whoa. My learners “get it”. They understand an important part of Growth Mindset is grit and perseverance. It’s about the process, and sticking with the problem until they figure it out. They begin to understand that their “giftedness” is not so much an innate ability they have, but they can grow their intelligence, continuing their learning. Challenges and working through them will grow their brain. Most importantly, they realize they can succeed in areas that they don’t feel strongly in. They just need to stick with it and grow their brain.

How do you help your students grow their brain? What foundation will you lay for your learners to innovate? How will you do this? Will you adopt a growth mindset? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Innovation Is A Hot Mess

 

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Every September this working mom feels like a hot mess. Unfortunately, the start of the school year is always busy for our family. I have three very adorable, very active kids. I teach all day and I drive home to do the after school activity shuffle. Each day, my home gets messier and messier.

One day, I was home in our office thinking about innovation in my virtual classroom.  I have read George Couros‘ book, The Innovator’s Mindset, a few times. It’s phenomenal and I can not encourage teachers enough to get the book, read it, and share your thoughts. I have also signed up for his online course that mirrors the ideas in the book. My next few blog posts will reflect how I will be incorporating my innovation sessions (Creativation) into my virtual lessons. Yes, I  have a plan…I think!

For those of you who may not know, I am a cyber teacher. I teach learners online and throughout the year invite them to our family learning center.  I feel I innovate everyday as a cyber educator. I work with some amazing teachers, true innovators and educational pioneers; they are finding ways to enhance learning in a non-traditional school…everyday. No, there are no “how to teach the online learner” books out there, nothing to help us (Dave Burgess, you listening?). We focus on pedagogy and best practices just like every teacher out there, but we do it online. I feel we are at the fore-front of providing rich, thought provoking, innovative lessons to all learners regardless of where they live (inner city, rural, suburbia) in the state of Pennsylvania.

As I look around our messy home office, strewn with back to school calendars, sport forms and paper work, the questions begin to swirl around in my head…

What conditions are ideal for creative innovation?

How important is the working environment to innovation?

Are there ready made barriers in classrooms or cyber rooms that could discourage students and impede innovation?

All of my learners are home schooled and each of their home environments’ are different. Some live in more urban areas, in small apartments, others may live in homes or on rural farms. Will one environment provide a better platform for creative innovation than another?

When I think about my gifted and talented class and our innovation sessions, I don’t worry so much about the actual virtual room environment. We see each other via webcams, they talk and interact with one another.Our relationships are strong. We have breakout rooms that provide a small group setting for collaboration and individual work. I know many learners feel comfortable, eager to participate in our lessons and hungry to learn. However, I know some will have difficulty with risk taking. I know many will struggle with multiple solutions. “Is this right?” they will ask. Most gifted and talented learners struggle with growth mindset. Some learners will have a hard time with the amount of freedom to innovate. I am anticipating some sort of issue with generating ideas and being open to others ideas. I have not thought about their physical working environment and it’s possible impact in regards to innovativeness.

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This quote speaks to me and makes me wonder. Could the environment we’re in, lead to more innovative ideas?  I’ve never been a fan of having an extremely messy desk or house, but I’m starting to think I might need to leave it messy more often. It may be time to test this theory. What conditions will you have in place for your learners to innovate?  Will you be changing your physical working environment for learners during your innovation sessions? How? Why?

Don’t Sweat The List

When MIND is WEAK, situation is problem. When MIND is balanced, situation is challenge. When MIND is strong, situation is opportunity.-2

When I worked at a traditional public school, my friend & colleague would wait…and wait… and wait…impatiently for it. During the month of August, she would check her mailbox everyday, sometimes twice a day hoping to spot it. She would stop at our school secretary’s desk, and ask “Is it ready?!”. She would wait in anticipation for that list. You know which one; THE class list. I never understood the hoopla surrounding the class list. What’s the big deal about that list anyway?

“Who do you have?!” she would ask as she tore the list out of my hands. I watched her eyes dart back and forth feverishly quick as she scanned the list.

“Awe, she’s a cutie pie. This one too! You will love her! ”

“That family is so nice, very supportive!”

“Oh …you got him…he’s trouble, watch out”

“You have 7 special needs kids and no aide…tough year for you!”

I heard what she said about my list, but I didnt pay any attention to her remarks. The names on the list are just that…names on a list. Some teachers spend hours analyzing why they ended up with who they ended up with. I don’t. I believe in fate. I’ve always believed that each learner is different in each and every classroom they enter, for each and every teacher they have, and in each and every group of students they are with. Why analyze?

It’s quite different preparing for a new school year as a cyber school teacher. There aren’t any classrooms to set up; no bulletin boards to do. We don’t wait in line to use the copier. Our set up is much less labor intensive, much less expensive too. However, we do have that list. That class list still brings much anxiety to teachers, even in the cyber school setting.

A few weeks ago, I overheard some teachers discussing their class lists. Each teacher was hopeful for a great bunch of learners, yet their tone of uncertainty was clear. Why were they anxious? What is it about a new group of learners, new families that get teachers worried? I pondered this for quite some time, coming to the conclusion that maybe their uncertainty had to do with a lack of self-confidence. You know, that little shadow of doubt deep within us. It usually peeks through around mid-August.

I did sweat my class list… once. I was teaching 1st grade. On the first day of school I was introduce to a student who never attended preschool, Pre-K, or Kindergarten. I was informed to teach both K and 1st grade curriculum, help her adjust to our setting & day. I worried about her and how accepting other students would be towards her. I remember some colleagues telling me not to do anything different or extra for her. “Treat her like you treat everyone else”, and “It’s not in our contract for you to work with her during these times”. Contract? Knowing what I know about this child, how could I even think of not helping her? How could I put a contract before her needs as a learner? My fear wasn’t a union contract, my fear was not doing enough for her. Can I do all this? Can I help her feel comfortable socially, emotionally, to achieve and accomplish all that we needed to? It was quite a challenge. Luckily, I like challenges.

She worked so hard learning letters, letter sounds, writing her name, identifying sight words. We worked together every chance we could. Maybe other teachers would be upset at a challenge like this, but I didn’t have time to think about that. This was an opportunity for me to challenge myself too. I never questioned why she was placed with me, I just kept focusing on the task at hand and her success and achievement. Her growth and progress was amazing! She left first grade reading on a Fountas and Pinnel level J reader. I will never forget the smile on her face as long as I live.

When I think about the many learners on those lists, I realize that they were placed in my room for a reason. Was I going to be teaching them an important life lesson? Would they be teaching me one? Thanks to each specific list of learners, I learned quite a bit about myself as a teacher. All of the class lists of students I had, helped to shape me into the teacher I am today. My confidence, my patience, my grit, empathy and love came from that list of learners. Each and every learner on that list played a very important part in my role as a teacher. Students on that list shape the teacher. They are our opportunity for change, for growth, for us to become better teachers.

What ever you do, do it to the purpose; do it thoroughly, not superficially. Go to the bottom of things. Anything half done, or half known, is in my mind, neither done nor known at all. Nay, worse, for it often misleads.” ~ Lord Chesterfield

As I think back to that day, overhearing my colleagues, I wish I had spoken up. I wish I had told them what talented educators they are. I wish I had told them that there’s no need to sweat the list because whatever learner comes their way, they would reach them, teach them, inspire and motivate them. I know they’re going to be up at night thinking and planning, writing and revising, correcting and grading, molding and shaping; working to the bone to ensure that their classroom of learners have every opportunity to be successful. I wish I had told them that list doesn’t matter. It’s not that list that ensures you a great class; it’s YOU as a teacher. It’s your acceptance and love for your students, meeting them where they are. It’s overcoming the challenges that present themselves and embracing each student and opportunity. This is what makes a great class and year.