The end is really just the beginning. #IMMOOC week 5

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed a huge change in myself, both as a person and as an educator. It is amazing what fueling your passion can do for all aspects of your life. I have had more energy for my family, for my students, and for myself, and it hasn’t been an energy burst — like the kind I need for a week or two when I have a lot going on. That type of energy isn’t sustainable, and when the busy weeks are over, you’re left feeling empty — drained. The energy I feel now fills me up and keeps me constantly pushing for more. If I was asked to explain what innovation does for a person, that is how I would describe it: fulfilling in innumerable ways.

I was not sure I wanted to do this book study. I am a reader, and even as someone who loves to read and is passionate about my career, I feel like I am always working. It felt for a long time that if I was doing well at work, I was failing at home and vice-versa. The worry that taking on something else right now would only add to that problem almost kept me from dedicating the time. But when a friend and colleague encouraged me to read the introduction because she thought it would resonate with my philosophy, something inside me whispered just loud enough to tip the scale, so I dove in and finally posted on the blog I created months ago and never got around to working on.

One of the major things this book and book study has taught me is that we are better when we take the time to grow ourselves. It seems so hypocritical to write that because as teachers, we push our kids every day to be better, but the truth of it is, sometimes we don’t always know how to do that for ourselves. We rationalize that we don’t have the time, but the truth is that it feels selfish to be doing something for ourselves when we think we should be doing more for our students. We often fail to realize that those actions are one in the same. After all, how can we teach learning to learn if we aren’t ourselves learning in ways that are relevant to the current world?

Brad Gustafson used a phrase last week that struck me: “one on one endeavor of the heart.” So often in schools, “learning” becomes not an endeavor, but a chore. And sometimes our jobs as teachers can feel that way, too, and there are lots of reasons that can happen. But it doesn’t have to happen. Sometimes we are scared to change our ways for fear that that means we’ve been doing it “wrong,” when in reality, we need to see every iteration of what we do as a step towards something better, even if that something better is always changing. That doesn’t mean we’re “throwing out the book” of our past experiences and successes. It just means that the book is a living document and we get to add to it all the time.

I’ve realized that all the things I want for myself in my job as a teacher are all the things my kids want as students. We all want the freedom to explore our passions. We all want our relationships to be built on trust — not the lack of it. My students want to be heard, just as I do. So I’m doing more listening, more asking, and giving more freedom. They are still learning, but it’s more authentic learning. It’s better.

This MOOC has also pushed me to address my major weakness, which has been difficult. When my husband and I moved here a year and a half ago, I swore I would make an impact without getting too attached to my new school and colleagues. As a military spouse, I have lived in four states in almost six years of marriage. I have had to leave students before their school year is over because my husband received unexpected orders, and as someone who cares deeply about the kids I teach, that has been heartbreaking. It felt like I was abandoning them. And even though we hope to stay here for a long time, I know that things can change in an instant, and it has crushed me in the past to leave close friends and colleagues that I love and who have made me the teacher than I am.

But I realize that I can’t do that anymore. I can’t be all in for kids without being all in myself. And the truth is, I have hated not feeling as connected to my school community. I don’t let go of relationships easily. My closest girlfriends live all over the country, but we keep up weekly (and sometimes daily) with text messages and phone calls. We schedule trips every six months to a year and take turns coming to see one another. We invest the time, the money, and the inconvenience because we’ve been through experiences together that not many people have. I pledged to myself that I wouldn’t get attached here, even if that meant I would go against my belief that relationships are what matter in life. I convinced myself it would be better, and as it turns out, I was wrong.

So even though this MOOC is ending, really, I think this is just the beginning for me. I’ve built on my strengths and solidified my philosophy, but I’m also coming back around to something I knew all along but needed some strong reminders to renew. We can never reach the end of innovation, and I’m thankful for the forever journey.

Innovation makes me cry. #IMMOOC week 4

This week I took a little break from the study. It wasn’t intentional; it just kind of happened after a weekend away with my family and then a busy week to end the grading period (while simultaneously beginning a new unit). In that time, though, I applied so much of my learning in this space to our classroom practices, and the outcome left me, well, in tears.

We began our poetry unit in 7th grade this week. Usually, I begin this unit with a day to begin answering our first essential question in the unit: What is poetry? It’s an effective day to build background knowledge, but seeing as poetry is a mode of writing that is supposed to convey and evoke emotion, I have been disappointed in the past that the first day of poetry doesn’t mimic that same purpose. I want kids to be excited; usually, they are closer to mildly interested.

This week, I put four essential questions from our poetry unit up on the board:

  • What is poetry?
  • What is its purpose?
  • What are some elements of poetry?
  • Why does poetry matter to you?

The kids are used to beginning the day with essential questions, but when they saw four, already they seemed to know that our routine would be disrupted. We did our initial discussion on the questions, and then we watched a short video created using PowToon about the elements of a short story. We had just finished our short story unit, and I wanted to kids to be reminded of just how much they had learned about short stories while also seeing a model of  a new way to show their learning.

When the video was over, I explained that our goal over the next few days was to answer those four essential questions on poetry and show our learning in a new way. They could use any medium they wanted, but they should choose one that fit their purpose and helped them best organize their answers.

A few weeks ago, I told this same group of students they could create their character sketch for their original short story however they wanted as long as they showed their character’s personality through thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. I was not prepared for the anger and frustration they would express. “Why can’t you just give us a sheet to fill out?” said one student. Another student lamented, “It’s just easier when you tell us how you want it because then I feel like I have a better chance of getting an A.” They were worried they would “mess it up.”

I was shocked. I had thought they would be excited, but instead, they felt anxious. In the short few weeks I had taught them, I had already demonstrated learning as cookie-cutter, when I had meant to do just the opposite. We had a great conversation that day about how it doesn’t matter to me how we assess their learning together — each one of them is different, and given the opportunity, they can show their creativity better when they aren’t bound to one format of learning. So that day didn’t go quite how I thought it would, but it set us up for a smoother day the next time around.

This week, when I let them decide who they would work with or if they would work with someone, they began moving around the room immediately. They asked questions like, “I can really use anything I want?” and “What if you don’t know the app we want to use?” I got to respond with things like, “Yes, absolutely!” and “Well, then I guess we’ll get to learn something together!” They were excited now that they knew the fun and benefit of freedom could outweigh the comfort of compliance.

The greatest part of the day, to me, was that there was no struggle to engage students in the learning. They really felt empowered that they could do this and take ownership and still succeed. I got to help students through the essential questions and content one on one  or in small groups without sacrificing time with others to do it because they were all learning a new tool or researching poetry. There was no wasted class time for anyone, and students who normally don’t get enthused about language arts came to my desk multiple times to show me their work so far. They were always beaming with pride, and they were happy to struggle through some new concepts. They were teaching themselves to learn.

When the bell rang, I had to remind a few kids that it was time to go, and when they had all left, I sat at my desk and cried a few joyful tears. They hadn’t all used the same apps, and some of them didn’t use technology at all. They hadn’t followed a rubric either.  But I had seen each and every one of them learn. They were all confident in their abilities. They were engaged and building background knowledge while meeting our other learning objectives. As a teacher, I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Innovating inside the box (but maybe pushing out the walls just a little bit) #IMMOOC Week 3

“What if we recognized and built on learners’ strengths?”

It’s a simple question, and it seems easy enough to do, but it forces me to think about this box within which we are innovating. I can’t help but feel like it’s a bit crowded in here. Do you feel it? Maybe we should push those walls out just a little bit; what do you think?

Image result for breaking out of the box

I absolutely understand that we can’t overhaul the system, but we also can’t afford to use that system as the excuse to shy away from new and better ways of educating.

This MOOC is all about communicating, sharing ideas, and learning from one another so that we can all be better learners, and in turn, guide our students to more meaningful learning as well. If I innovate over here, and you innovate over there, and someone else innovates between us, we’re bound to create enough energy and excitement and possibility that the box will be forced to open.

George’s comment about grading and reporting in chapter 7 struck me as a box-opening type of statement:

“I think we spend too much time documenting what students know and not enough time empowering them to invest in their own learning and helping them understand their strengths and areas of growth.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which we communicate progress to students, and I can’t help but think that grades are an outdated mode of reporting. When I think about grades, I think about one of my favorite TED talks. Chimamanda Adichie discusses the danger of a single story and the ways that limited exposure can be detrimental to our understanding of ourselves and our world.

As a child, Adichie mostly read British stories even though she grew up in Nigeria, and so when she wrote, her characters were more like the characters she read about rather than the people living around her. “What this demonstrates, I think,” she explains, “is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.”

When she was finally able to read books by African writers, her thinking shifted: “I realized that people like me…could also exist in literature.”

I worry that sometimes our “underperforming” students feel that already their identities have been set for them. They feel that school is not a place “for” them because their interests and passions or ways of learning might not be represented there, so they get by without getting excited. They’ve been given access to resources that might only elicit mediocre responses from them, and so, they are awarded with mediocre marks.

“So that is how to create a single story,” Adichie explains. “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Do we want to create mediocre people who see themselves, sadly, in a single percentage? Or do we want students to know deeply that there is not just this one, single story of who they are in their learning — that they are, in fact, multifaceted and multi-talented in ways different from the student sitting next to them?

As Adichie points out, children are impressionable. It’s important that we take seriously the ways in which they develop their identities, and while  I think that sometimes grades can certainly boost a student’s confidence, there are also often times that grades don’t accurately reflect what a student can do. Grades can tear a student down and damage him or her in ways that can have lasting negative impacts.

I don’t think we want to tell our students a single story of themselves. Instead, “what if we recognized and built on learners’ strengths?” Let’s push a little on the walls of this box.