Summer Reading Recommendation: Shift This!

Whether you’ve been on a summer break for a month or just a few days, now is the perfect time to get started on your personal professional development if you haven’t already.

shift this

I just finished reading Shift This! by Joy Kirr, who has increasingly empowered her students to direct their own learning during her time as a seventh grade ELA teacher. There are so many reasons to read this book, but I want to highlight a few specific (and exceptional) benefits and takeaways I’ve garnered from this quick read.

Step by step shifts

My sister and I teach in the same district and collaborate as often as we possibly can, so it’s no surprise that we often “talk shop” at family dinners or in our free time. During one of these discussions last week, my sister commented that she wished that all educators who share a criticism would always provide a rationale and an alternative. If you “would never (insert classroom activity here)” in your classroom, it would be nice to explain why and then give a more beneficial practice instead. She added, “If we knew a better strategy or activity, wouldn’t we already be doing it?” .

Kirr’s book does that, but goes a step further, and step by step. She starts with small shifts in every chapter, and the chapters seem to order by ease, so along with getting the answers and student-centered practices we are looking for, we’re left feeling capable. None of her suggestions seem overwhelming, and each one provides a foundation for the next so that all learners (teacher included) feel as comfortable as possible with the adjustments.

The voice we need to hear

Kirr devotes an entire chapter to resistance, which is a word that seems to be paired often with both innovation and change, unfortunately. Nevertheless, resistance is a real thing. What I love most about Kirr’s comments on and suggestions for resistance is her honesty about her own role, both past and present, in resistance. She admits to having once been a teacher who held tightly to traditional practices, and so now, is able to empathize with educators who still feel strongly about holding on to all or much of the control in their classrooms. And though she is no longer resistant to change, she admits that she has more work to do:

I have often thought that teachers at my own school are my harshest critics. I’ve realized, however, that many times it’s only in my own mind. Why is this? I believe it’s because I’m afraid of failure, and I’m taking many risks. I am still unsure of what I am doing in the classroom. I have realized as well that I react — instead of stopping to listen and trying to recognize other teachers’ perspectives. It is my own fault that I do not take the time to explain the reasons behind my actions to teachers at my own school. I am a people-pleaser. This behavior, however, can be a detriment to yourself and also to your students. (p. 160)

These words ring true for so many educators, and this is all especially true for me.  And while the tone of this section is one of accountability and directness, as a whole, her voice is encouraging rather than chiding, so that readers don’t feel guilty about what they haven’t done yet, but instead empowered about what they CAN do.  Her honesty about her journey with change, even after many years as an educator, is so refreshing because it shows change as a never-ending practice — something to look forward to rather than resist or resent.

Embracing the conversation

Near the end of her book, Kirr asks readers to write — to share their thoughts, questions, or experiences to help her and others keep learning. She goes a step further to encourage people who disagree with her to share their ideas, too, in order to “make these ideas stronger” (p. 175). The message that she’s sending here to readers is that there is no right or wrong, but there are maybe instead scales of better and different. What I mean by that is that our kids are not going to go an entire year and not learn a single thing in our classes if we give the very best that we have. But could they learn more from one method over another? Absolutely. Could they feel more excited as learners if I tried something new? Sure! Might they be empowered if I relinquish some of the control rather than compliant and maybe uninspired? Yes, definitely. So if we keep talking, keep sharing, keep the conversation going even when it gets awkward or tough or we disagree, then the chances are exponentially higher that our students’ lives and learning will benefit even greater than they would have had we not embraced the conversation. Isn’t that the whole point?

I missed the boat on the book study that Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) is currently facilitating on Shift This!, but the discussion forum is open the the public, and I would definitely recommend jumping in to see what others are saying about the book and to expand your PLN. If nothing else, read the book and reflect for yourself on the subtle shifts you can make this fall that will impact your students in big ways for years to come.

Leading by example: Readers and writers don’t just happen.

When my Mass Communications students turned in their fall semester final projects, almost every single student mentioned something about how our class is a writing class, which made me proud and confused all at once. I was proud because writing is a part of everything we do, both in class, and I believe, in the way we communicate with others. But I was also a little confused because I had never TOLD them this — that our class was a writing class.

And that’s when I realized that it matters not even a little bit what I tell them. What matters is what we’re living. I can tell them that class will be fun, that I value their opinions, that education is important, but they won’t believe me if I don’t MAKE those things true and lead with my example. In fact, I might as well not say a thing.

This morning I watched last night’s episode of #KidsDeserveIt. Adam and Todd’s guest, Mandy Ellis, talked about the importance of giving kids access to books “with no strings attached,” and when she spoke about her one frustration in education leadership, it resonated deeply with me: If we want to create a culture of reading, why aren’t we all reading?

As research and experience have proven, reading and writing go hand-in-hand, and I have continued to be frustrated myself when teachers and administrators complain that their students “aren’t writers.” My response recently has been a simple question: “Are you?”


image via @writersedit on Twitter

I don’t think any of us have to be incredible writers or readers of the deepest and most profound texts to be good at showing kids the importance of writing and reading. Quite simply, we just have to start with DOING those two things in our classrooms and schools. Maybe growing up someone turned reading into a chore for us, or maybe we feel uncomfortable writing because we’ve never felt “good” at it (or maybe our writing assignments were all prompts on boring books and we saw no personal utility in it so we didn’t give much effort or feel any inspiration). No matter the reason for avoidance, if we want our students to read and write, we need to do more than tell them those are important; we need to live those valuable activities with them.

Pick up a book. Pick up a pen. Grab your tablet. Start today — it’s that simple, and #KidsDeserveIt.