Why blog?

This fall, I joined the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC after some serious urging by our district’s Instructional Tech Director. The facilitators of the MOOC encouraged participants to blog about their learning as they read and then share their posts and comment on others’. Even though I write constantly for myself and coach kids in writing every day, I was skeptical about taking the time to set up a blog and put my writing out there for others to read, use, and maybe even criticize. Wouldn’t writing in my notebook have the same reflective value? What could I have to say that someone else wasn’t already thinking?

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Two weeks into the course, I had a little chuckle to myself when I realized that I had gone against everything I knew about education when I doubted what blogging could do for me. I preach that learning is doing, and yet, I was hesitant to “do” blogging and see what I was capable of producing.

When I started reading others’ posts and receiving comments on mine, I realized that blogging isn’t about saying something that no one else had ever said or thought before; it is about connecting, relating, sharing, and growing. I think the whole point is to say what other people are feeling — to give voice to a common thought, issue, or concern — and then come together to share ways of improving.

This is why blogging is good for any subject, but especially education.

I have always felt that teaching can be isolating, which is ironic because I’m surrounded by people all day, and by nature, my job is pretty transparent. My administrators are in and out of my room all the time, and the kids share what is happening in all their classrooms. But there are not many opportunities for me to bounce my ideas off of other professionals and have a lengthy troubleshooting session during the school day.

It’s tough to match the quality of face time with a trusted colleague, but to be able to come home and fully process my thoughts, write them out, and then share with a wide audience of people as passionate about their work as I am is as close as I’ll probably ever get. Blogging is limitless. I can connect with any person who happens across my little corner of the internet, and if they share it online or even with a colleague, my corner gets a little bigger. Suddenly, my community isn’t just the people I try to squeeze in conversations with during the day; my community is a web of people that read what I share and share their thoughts for me to read, too.

In that way, blogging completely changes the way I reflect on my teaching. I teach my kids that writing is a way of learning, and again, it’s important for me to practice what I preach. In class, my students self-evaluate and peer-evaluate. They often say that hearing from other students helps them recognize things they wouldn’t have noticed before. Blogging does that for me, too. Reflective writing for myself is still really important, but like my students, I’m noticing that sharing it increases the benefits tenfold.  In the words of AJ Juliani, “When you write what your heart tells you it will always have a dual impact. The reflection impacts us personally, and also those who read it.”

 

A few months ago, I had countless reasons why I couldn’t blog. Now that it’s part of my practice, I can’t think of one.

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Embrace the new

I constantly hear teachers talk about educational trends as a metaphorical pendulum. It swings back and forth every ten years or so, reintroducing previous ideas rebranded as something new, shiny, and necessary for students’ success.

My tenure in education is not yet a decade deep, so I haven’t experienced the pendulum swing myself, but I do know that when teachers are excited and enthusiastic, kids are more likely to perk up and get involved in their own education as well. Maybe the whole point of rebranding something old is less about introducing something better than before and more about getting people excited again so that they can transmit that energy to students. After all, when you see the same scene over and over again, it gets a little boring, but if you view that scene from a slightly different angle, an entirely different world can emerge.

Sometimes as teachers, though, we fail to see the “entirely different world” because we feel so overwhelmed that we don’t think we have time to look out the window, let alone look outside twice — from two different windows, no less! And when we get overwhelmed, we get a little… negative. While I’ve certainly been guilty of attending (and even hosting) the frustration-with-education pity party, I also know that dialogue gets us nowhere. Here are a few practices that can help minimize the education pendulum whiplash.

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See the good before pointing out the bad.

Today I was totally overwhelmed. My calendar is filled with IEP meetings, ELA PD, and testing over the next three weeks, and I need to get evaluated sometime in there. On top of that, I just started three new units with my classes this week, and my Mass Communications students need to finish final drafts of their articles so that we can get the newspaper to print by next Saturday. And that’s just my professional life.

So today after school when I walked into my Future Ready meeting, I was mentally listing all the things I needed to be doing instead. I came in with a negative attitude; it felt like one more thing I needed to do instead of the next great thing I got to do. And yet, we had a productive meeting. I got to sit next to my sister, who is the teacher and person I have always admired most, and when I left, I felt like I had more direction for myself because I was reminded of the vision we have for students. So tonight, I’m excited again about all the busy because all of it boils down to doing better for kids. And that’s my job. Can you imagine how much I could have offered and gotten out of that meeting had I thought of the positive outcomes first?

When presented with a new opportunity to improve student learning, make a promise to yourself that you’re going to find all the good first. My guess is that after listing all the potential positive outcomes, you’ll find that any downfall pales in comparison to the benefits for kids. Immediate excitement will replace temporary negativity.

Be a problem finder, but show up with a solution, too.

If you consistently showed up to a potluck with friends sans dish to pass, do you think you’d continue getting invited? Probably not. Even worse would be showing up with liverwurst every time.

This is what happens when we constantly bring problems to attention without providing any positive, concrete solutions. Pretty soon, we’ll find ourselves without a seat at the table. George Couros (and lots of other really incredible educators) see the obvious value in being a person who can recognize real issues, but problem-finding can quickly equate to complaining if there is no action suggested to resolve the issue.

If you’re going to be a problem-finder, be a problem-solver, too.

Know that you don’t have to know everything to get started with a new practice.

The true beauty of the age we live in is that information is easy to come by. When I was in middle school, if I forgot my textbook at school, I was calling (on my landline phone) to every neighborhood friend begging (read: sobbing) to borrow the book. The book had ALL THE ANSWERS! If I were to pull a textbook out in class now, it would be because all of the power in the universe had been consumed and our Chromebooks were dead. If my students want to use a new app, and I don’t know how to use it, we find a YouTube video or an online tutorial and we figure it out together. If I’m busy helping someone else, sometimes the kids just teach themselves without a resource and then they get me caught up later.

I don’t have to know everything to help my kids learn that they can learn anything they want. And if we really want them to view learning as a lifelong, enjoyable endeavor, it’s best that we don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Develop the lesson for the consumer

Probably the most important thing I have ever done as an educator was ask my students what they wanted. I’ll never forget the first time I did this. I was using a poetry highlighting strategy to analyze “One Face Alone” with a group of Pre-AP 9th graders. We had done it before with other poems, and the kids had responded well, but this time they didn’t seem into it. I stopped and asked them if something was wrong. One very straightforward but sweet girl in the front said, “Mrs. K, I don’t know about them, but I’m tired of doing it this way, and I’m not a huge fan of the strategy we learned yesterday.” When I asked how they’d rather do it instead, they wasted no time coming up with new ways to get to the same outcome: analyzing the poem to be able to write about it. I couldn’t believe how fast they came up with the ideas, but in actuality, they’d probably spent most of their lives in education dreaming of the ways they wished they could learn in school.

As I milled around the room, I saw that they were all working in different ways but coming to many of the same conclusions about the poem, and I got to spend time working with kids instead of asking questions from the board. It wasn’t my idea, but it was better.

I’ve never forgotten that day, and so whenever a new idea in education arises, before I think about how it affects me, I think about how it affects the consumers: the kids. If it would benefit them — prepare them better for the world in which they’re going to be leaders — I’m trying it as soon as is humanly possible. And I’m sharing the why with the kids so that they see it as the new, exciting opportunity that it is.

3 Essential Traits of an Effective Mentor #IMMOOC

I’ve been in education for six short years, but I have been fortunate to be mentored by a number of incredible educators. I know that not everyone shares my experience; several of my teacher friends have lamented that they haven’t gotten much out of the mentoring program in their districts or that they weren’t given much guidance when they became an assigned mentor to a new teacher. I don’t think, though, that becoming an inspiring mentor requires a 30-hour training or a certain number of service years. In my experience, teacher-leaders just need 3 key traits to empower others.

1. Mentors share.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but when I say that mentors share, I don’t mean that they pass on lesson plans or tried-and-true strategies, though every once in a while, that certainly helps! Mentors share their passion for learning and facilitating. They understand that they don’t know it all, and so they come to mentorship as a partner — someone to work with rather than under. And when they experience a struggle, they are transparent without being negative. They model the attitude that there is no problem impossible to solve, and they actively seek out alternatives when one possibility doesn’t work out.

When I became a student teacher, my cooperating teacher shared her classroom and her passion, but Susan also shared with me a gift much greater: confidence. As a co-department chair, Pre-AP teacher, and a teacher of a state-tested grade, she had lots of reasons to keep a watchful eye and give pointed suggestions. Instead, she trusted me completely (or at least pretended at first!). Knowing that someone else trusted me to teach her students made me feel confident in my abilities, and as a novice teacher, there is no gift shared more beneficial than that.

2. Mentors listen first, then coach through noticing and questioning.

Anyone in a position to lead others should spend 70% of their time listening, 20% asking questions, and 10% making observations. Did you notice that none of that time should be spent giving advice or solving problems? In our classrooms, giving students answers to questions generates dependence. The same becomes true with adults. If we want to develop teacher capacity, we have to make teachers feel capable to come to solutions independently. The way to do that is to guide them there until they don’t need to be guided anymore. George Couros, in his book Innovator’s Mindsetexplains the importance of teaching to strengths first. Influential leaders know how to help others discover strengths so that they can capitalize on those and develop a framework for improving areas where they see opportunity for growth.

My former ELA coordinator, Michelle, is the perfect example of someone who guides people to greatness without prescribing. One of my favorite memories at my former school was the moment my entire team realized we had been teaching a standard ineffectively because we interpreted it incorrectly. We looked over our common assessment data more than a little flabbergasted that one of our easiest standards was so often missed. Michelle was in our PLC meeting and asked a few simple questions. Almost instantly, we discovered our error. Then, rather than tell us how to teach that standard more effectively, she listened and supported us as we brainstormed new methods. Because of her, I not only understand how to use data effectively, but I also recognize its value.

3. Mentors are never “done.”

Susan and Michelle are still people that I go to when I have a question or need some guidance, even though I am not a new teacher anymore. In fact, I left that district (and that state) when my husband received orders almost two years ago, and yet, they have never said they can’t/won’t/don’t have time to help me or hear me out. Good mentors understand that support and relationships are what make a strong team. When colleagues are in constant conversation about their craft and practices, that dialogue helps everyone grow. If the goal for our students is continuous growth, shouldn’t that be our goal for ourselves and each other? Effective mentors see the big picture and know the job is never done because there is always more to learn, try, and share.

 

 

 

The day I threw out my lesson plan #IMMOOC #writing

On Tuesday, November 8, I did what I do every day. I came into my room and typed out the essential question of the day for students, and set up for writer’s workshop on our most recent writing project because that is what I had carefully planned for the day.

And then my sophomores walked in.

“Mrs. K, this election is going to be crazy,” one commented. “Can we watch the news? I want to see what they’re saying.”

Lately, I’ve been focusing on really listening to what my students want and need. I used to ask them for written feedback multiple times a year, and I felt that that was helpful. I would immediately share the things I thought we could make happen (more group time or more independent projects) and explain carefully why certain requests were non-negotiable (their requests to eliminate writing were always equal parts hilarious, maddening, and saddening for me, but that’s a post for another day). But that feedback wasn’t instant; often I had already missed lots of opportunities to provide them with better lessons.

So when all of my students echoed that request, we went with it. I logged into my cable account and put the news on my SMARTBoard. Then, we had to decide how we would measure our learning.

We are in our poetry unit, and at the beginning of the unit, kids activated background knowledge about poetry by completing a project, and most students came to the conclusion that poetry is about using emotion to convey a message. This campaign had certainly evoked some emotion from Americans, and so poetry seemed to be a good fit.

“Write a poem about it,” I said. For the next five minutes, we had lots of blank screens. Students weren’t sure where to start. None of the prewriting activities in our toolbox felt like a good fit.

I knew that the kids were struggling to understand how diction creates a strong tone in poetry, though, and I also knew that the media is well-versed in word choice, so I modeled. “Okay, let’s all listen for a minute and write down any words we hear that stand out to us.” Pencils scratched and keyboards clacked away. Soon I had a list of seven or eight words, and I separated them into groups. The kids seemed to understand what I was doing. I was organizing my words so that the shift in my poem might be created more authentically through diction.

So we watched, listened, and wrote.

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Kids were not just engaged, they were empowered to share their thoughts and opinions. They asked so many questions of me and of each other. It was energizing, and they didn’t struggle to include figurative language and other literary devices. It came naturally for them. They crafted their writing purposefully, which is what I strive to teach them to do every day.

They posted their finished poems in the window of our room and they raced to do it! Here they were, anxious to publish and share their poems with their schoolmates. Throughout the day, students brought their friends by the window to read poems; their learning spilled out of our classroom.

Perhaps the best thing that happened that day was that students discussed some controversial topics with emotion but also with empathy. 7th graders, freshmen, and sophomores felt comfortable sharing their opinions and using respectful discourse more than most adults I’ve witnessed in the last few months. They didn’t avoid the tough topics — they just understood that their opinions and experiences mattered as much as anyone else’s.

I continue to be amazed at what can happen for my students when I trust them. They want to learn, and I believe that’s true of even the most seemingly apathetic students. When they are the experts of themselves, why wouldn’t we ask them what motivates them? I’m learning that they often know better than I do.

 

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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

Getting (un)comfortable with innovation: Week 2 of #IMMOOC

Control is comfort. Think about it: When we are in control, we feel comfortable because the path is directed by us. After all, what can go wrong when I am steering the ship? Of course, I’ve made a bullet-proof travel plan, I’ve got an average of 1.5 life vests per passenger (because safety), and lots of extra supplies in case we have to divert around a storm. It will be the perfect trip because I am perfectly planned. Right?

Wrong.

Let me tell you who feels good about this trip: me. The captain. I am steering the wheel and staying the course no matter what comes our way. But my passengers? They’re not having fun. They’re seasick and tired and are kind of thinking about jumping ship and taking those life vests with them. They haven’t given any input into the plan. Maybe they felt we needed to stop at an island along the way? Maybe the supplies I brought are bland and they know a fun little stop where the supplies are bold and diverse. Maybe they know a faster route, or maybe they all want to take different ships to get there? Why won’t I let them?

We have lots of reasons why we say we shouldn’t let our students take their own wheels and steer their own ships. We think they aren’t ready, or they seem unmotivated, or (insert any number of excuses here). More and more, though, I realize that it isn’t that they CAN’T take control; it’s more that I can’t seem to let them.

As a teacher who desperately wants my students to love learning and grow academically, socially, and emotionally, I feel better when I have a perfect plan, but what I learned in the #IMMOOC reading this week is that rather than having the perfect plan, I need to ask the perfect questions. And then, I need to let each student come to the answer in his/her own way while I help them all get there in whatever ways I can.

Innovation might feel uncomfortable at first. After all, if we are thinking and working in NEW and BETTER ways, that means we are constantly changing, and we’re told that change is often difficult. But what if change was the norm rather than the occasional occurrence? Life would be so much better if uncomfortable could be comfortable.

Maybe I’m ready to take off my captain’s hat after all.

 

 

 

Raising chickens taught me more about education than my schooling ever did.

Three years ago my husband came home one day and said, “We should raise chickens.” It was a random comment that somehow picked up steam in the weeks that followed, and a month and a half later, we had built a coop and our toddler was picking out baby chicks to take home.

Neither my husband nor I had any experiences raising chickens. He grew up in Milwaukee, and though I grew up in cornfields, my grandfather had given up cows, pigs, and chickens before I joined the world. On top of that, we lived in a newly developed neighborhood in suburban San Antonio — not exactly rural living.

There were lots of reasons we shouldn’t have taken on our hens: we had never done it before, we knew nothing about their needs, we had a small backyard, and our homeowner’s association strictly forbade farm animals. Nevertheless, we spoke with our neighbors (who agreed to keep mum if they could have fresh eggs), found plans for a coop, read blogs and watched videos, and suddenly became the neighborhood experts on raising healthy egg-layers. And we loved it.

When people found out that we raised chickens, I can’t tell you how many times they said, “You don’t look like a chicken person.” At first (and strangely), I took this as a compliment. Their faces and tone seemed to say that growing chickens was a less than desirable way to spend one’s time. But after about the twentieth time of hearing that, I started thinking: What does it mean to “look like a chicken person?”

I began to wonder if that same thinking was happening in the minds of the children in my own classroom, but in a different context. Reading the first chapter of The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros only solidified my concern: What if I have created an environment where students feel they don’t fit the description of student? What if the ways they crave to learn are not the ways I am allowing them to learn?

On the first day of school this year, rather than go over policies, procedures, and the syllabus as I have in the past, I wrote a question on the board: What does it mean to educate? The class brainstormed ideas mostly consisting of the notion that education is centered around a person delivering the education. They talked a lot about teachers in school and learning from talking to their friends. After we created a list, the students had free reign to use any resources the school provided them in order to expand their understanding of what it means to educate; they could use Chromebooks, other students, teachers, administrators, custodians, librarians, books, etc.

Every student nearly jumped out of his/her seat when I said it was time to go investigate and interview their resources. When it was time to return to class and share their favorite definitions, they shared things like “to provide an opportunity for another person to learn,” “to broaden your worldview,” and “using tools to improve skills.” All of their favorites were centered around the student now instead of some supposedly all-knowing education deliverer. When they synthesized their favorites and wrote their group definition of education on the board, we all realized that being student shouldn’t look the way we’ve always allowed and encouraged it to look — a student, in a desk, hand raised, waiting to see if what they think is correct. Being a student, as it turn out, can look however each child wants/needs it to look, and in that way, no student should ever have to feel that they don’t fit the bill of student.

I am so grateful my husband followed his curiosity three years ago. We bought three hens in Texas, and then 25 chickens when we moved to Illinois. We went from one small coop to three coops and a huge free-range pasture. And now, we breed our own chickens. I never imagined our interest could take us this far, and I’m excited to know that we still have so much more to discover.

As it turns out, I guess we do look like chicken people. And for the rest of my life, my goal as an educator is not to uphold the age-old definition of student. Instead, I want my students to write themselves in as new and different entries to an old, old word.