Be the Change for Kids #IMMOOC

The other day, my mom called my daughters and they couldn’t stop staring at the black screen. “Where’s Nana?” they asked. “We can’t see her!” Facetime is their normal. Connection no matter the distance is their expectation. I couldn’t have imagined that as a two or five year old, but I am so thankful that when we lived thousands of miles away from our families, my kids were still able to see and know them with so much ease. This new and better way of communication provides an opportunity for deeper relationships that didn’t exist before.

By George’s definition, innovation is making something new and better, and it is my job as a teacher to learn and try new and better ways to make learning more accessible, applicable, and meaningful to my students and their realities. But I think the real takeaway from this week’s YouTube Live with Jo Boaler is that the process of innovation in the classroom is the part that’s most important, and it’s important for two reasons.

  1. Innovation leads to failure, which leads to deeper learning.  Jo explained that when we fail, our brains actually grow more than when we get an answer “right” or succeed, so we’re learning more from a failure than from a success, and that failure can push us to a more complete understanding and more probable success in the future (not to mention the ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives). It helps us change the narrative that failure is to be avoided, but instead is meant to be celebrated as a springboard for success.  Isn’t that what we want for our kids: to be motivated, learn from their choices, and ultimately be successful and fulfilled in their lives? Isn’t that what we want for ourselves?
  2. Modeling the process makes them more comfortable as reflective learners. Designing new and better ways of learning for my students and sharing that learning (i.e. my planning, experiments, failures, adjustments, successes, and reflections) with them not only provides more opportunities for them to learn content and 21st century skills, but more importantly, it provides them a model for engaging in the process of innovation/learning that they can improve upon and take with them to use for the rest of their lives. Innovation doesn’t just make new and better things; it makes better people.

My favorite part of Jo’s talk was when she said that “learning something new changes your identity.” Of course, I want my students to learn to read and write, but what I really want is to teach them how to be empathetic, thoughtful, engaged, open-minded, and accepting humans through the things we read and write together. I want them to see the struggles of others and jump up to help. I hope for them to solve the problems of the world even if some of those problems don’t affect them very much or at all. I want them to feel deeply that they are needed in this world because so many of them don’t see that yet. A multiple choice test isn’t going to accomplish or even slightly contribute to those goals, but giving them opportunities to impact others in their community and beyond with their thoughts and their words will. Innovation will help them to change their identities for the better. And I know this because that’s what it’s done for me and for every other educator I’ve met who has grown passionate about improving their practice for kids.

Is it always easy? Absolutely not. I will never forget a lesson I planned after starting the first round of #IMMOOC when my seventh graders nearly revolted because I let them choose their path to the product. Some of them instantly valued the newfound freedom that Jo explained this week that teachers and kids all want, and in time, all of them grew to appreciate and crave this type of learning. But kids are the easiest to win over because it’s their education and learning. They are the primary stakeholders. Adults are not as easy, and I continue to have colleagues, friends, parents, and even strangers challenge my change in practice. Not everyone will see the value, and that’s okay, but we have to keep in mind that it is the kids who matter. We got into education to make a positive difference in kids’ lives. It’s absolutely crucial to them that we follow through.

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photo from wikimedia commons

#IMMOOC: The gift that keeps on giving

In my relatively short teaching career, I’ve experienced a lot of changes. Before I was certified, I taught a reading lab at a university in Tennessee, then became certified in Texas, and early in my first year teaching there, I found out my husband had received orders to Illinois. When I started teaching here in the Land of Lincoln, I can’t tell you how many times I said both to myself and to others that I was thrilled not to have to undergo any major changes for a while. Little did I know the biggest changes were yet to come.

Fast forward a year. Our district Instructional Technology Director, Joanna (@joannacarroll96), came into my room raving about this new book The Innovator’s Mindset. She said just reading the intro gave her chills. I believed her, but also believed that if I took on one more work-related thing either my head was going to explode or I might have to reconsider my career choice. It sounded like a great book, but I filed it away into the folder in my mind labeled “Hope to get to; probably won’t.”

Joanna is persistent, though, and she’s good at her job. She made sure to mention it periodically, and when the author, George Couros (@cgouros), announced that he and Katie Martin (also amazing – follow her at @katiemartiedu) would be moderating on open, online course about the book, she not-so-subtly encouraged me to do it with her. I’d join and lurk, I decided, but it only took half of the first chapter to realize that I wasn’t going to be a lurker.

The last week of the #IMMOOC, I blogged that the end was really just the beginning. In that post, I reflected on the change I experienced over those few weeks:

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 had been so worried about what the book study might take away form me: time and energy. Instead, it only gave: fuel for my passion, permission and encouragement to be the educator I’d been fighting to be, a growing PLN to learn from and share with, and an energy I’d never known before. And those gifts keep on giving a year later. Before beginning, the thought of one more change in my life exhausted me. After five short weeks, this was what I had to say about change:

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’m not exaggerating when I say The Innovator’s Mindset and #IMMOOC changed my life, and minus the cost of the book, it’s FREE! If you’re even considering signing up, please read Annick Rauch’s post about what the book study entails (and to answer your question: Yes, I “met” her through #IMMOOC!). If you’re ready, you can go straight to the sign up!

And if you do sign up, please comment to this post or tweet me @MrsKrolicki_phs with your Twitter handle and blog so that I can follow you! I can’t wait to get started on round 3 with you!

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Hug your students

…or give them a high five. Or a fist-bump. Or a pat on the back.

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Every morning starts the same way for me. I drive my daughter and I to school, we drop my things in my room, and then I walk her over to her elementary school to begin her day. Then I walk back, smiling and wishing a good day to all the kids walking on the sidewalk or into their first classes. Somewhere in that routine every morning, I get a hug from at least one former student of mine. Every. Single. Day.

I feel like I need to stop to address the elephant in the room: Yes, I hug my students. If they ask for one, if they reach out, if they are crushed or sad and I have asked if they need one, I hug them. Sometimes it’s a high five (or an air high five) or a fist-bump or a pat on the back, but sometimes it’s a hug. I’m in the low-paying, high-need, extraordinarily rewarding, all-consuming, emotionally-draining, incredible business of education (aka relationships), and if a student asks for a hug, I won’t say no…

…because I don’t know what they just walked out of before they walked into my room.

…because some of them have told me that they hate the weekends because school is more stable than home.

…because it’s a compliment that they want to hug me.

…because they might not be able to remember the last time someone hugged, high-fived or fist-bumped them.

…because someday in the not-so-distant future, each and every one of these kids is going to leave our classroom and our school, and I want them to be kind, compassionate, empathetic humans who make others feel important and loved.

One day last year, one of my junior high students made an incredibly poor decision in the way he treated another student in our classroom when I was out for the day and had a sub. When I returned and heard about his behavior, my principal and I had a discussion with him that, although calmly delivered and threat-free, resulted in his breaking down in tears. Instinctively, I put my arm around his shoulder. In that moment, he was scared and he lied, but I stayed.

Later in the day, he came up to me and told me the truth: He had said the terrible things we asked him about, but he was scared to disappoint me any further than he already had. When he finally unloaded the real story, he said: “Thank you for comforting me even though you were disappointed in what I’d done and you knew I was lying. I just didn’t want you to be mad at me.”

That was the moment that I truly understood the power of a hug (or a high five or a smile or whatever you’re comfortable sharing with your kids to show them you care). It hadn’t even crossed my mind at the time, but what it showed my student was that he could count on me to be in his corner no matter what. I would continue to respect and care about him as he made mistakes and learned how to be a good person. I wouldn’t turn my back if he messed up; instead, I’d stand next to him and help him find a way to pick up the pieces.

In education, the importance of authenticity and relationships can’t be overestimated. If the kids know you care, their investment in your class increases. I share my faults with them, I admit when I’m wrong, and I apologize.. If I’ve learned anything from the educators I read and respect, it’s that the three most important aspects of education are relationships, relationships, and relationships.

I learned it from my favorite professor in my graduate program, Dr. Lynn Masterson at Texas Sate University, who modeled for us every day what a positive classroom culture and a culture of writing can do for students. I learned it further from Susan Shires, my cooperating teacher at Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas, who knew her students so completely and took the time to really know and invest in me. I continue to learn it every day from my current principal, Rich, who makes knowing kids and teachers his business, even when his other responsibilities as principal feel overwhelming. I learn it from people like George Couros, Adam Welcome, Todd Nesloney, Joy Kirr, and many more, who write incredible books and blogs that shift my perspective and strengthen my resolve to be the best teacher I can be for the students I serve.

And if you’re a friend, colleague, student, or acquaintance who has ever hugged me, know that you’ve impacted me positively through the care you’ve shown when I needed it. I appreciate you.

 

 

An open letter to my seventh graders after their standardized tests

My wonderful, unique, 7th grade humans:

Today you finished up your winter MAP test. It’s results are supposed to show your areas of strength and weakness, providing you and your teachers with valuable feedback regarding your instruction. Some of you were jubilant about meeting your goal and showing how much you have learned since September. Others of you made growth but felt self-conscious that you didn’t hit the goal you set for yourself, or worried that your score was “still too low.” And some of you didn’t “make growth” this time around. I watched your disappointed faces as you finished your tests, and I watched the confidence you’d built all year slowly dissipate because of this one number.

Now, I don’t know everything, but there are two things I do know for sure: 1) You are not defined by a number determined by the answers you select on a multiple choice test, and 2) You have made more growth these last few months than a test could ever begin to show you.

Let me start by explaining that you came to my classroom this year already wonderful. Your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and family frieKids working.jpgnds and previous teachers who all play a role in making you the people that you are have done an outstanding job. You are kind, thoughtful, enthusiastic individuals. You have empathy, and when someone else is hurting, you do whatever it takes to help alleviate their pain. Do you know how incredible that is? So many adults struggle to be compassionate when someone else’s experience or background has been different from their own, but it seems to come so naturally to you. The resilience you show when something doesn’t go quite right the first time is so admirable, and you’ve taught me that — to never give up and to always come back stronger and with a new plan after a day that tests me.

 

And throughout this year, you have only become even more impressive learners and people. You’ve kept the empathy, generosity, and kindness you brought with you, but you’ve also become some of the greatest critical thinkers I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching. When you write, you write about things that matter, not just to you, but also to your classmates and to me. You see the heart of a story, and you understand that writing isn’t meant to be formed from a prompt — it’s meant to deliver a message others need to hear: of hope, of change, of pain, of resilience, of love. All of you recognize that reading is a vehicle for exploring your passion, not a task of which the purpose is to determine your supposed ability.

You are not 210, 237, 205, 223, or 214. You are so much more than a score, and you are anything but average. You exceed my standards for what students should be every day. You take charge of your learning, inside the classroom and outside, and that motivation is the true determiner of success in life.

Keep striving to do well on these tests. Knowing how to survive or thrive in tasks that feel overwhelming is such an important life skill to master. More importantly, though, continue mastering these most important traits: caring for others, loving yourself, engaging in respectful debate and discourse, and reading and writing to learn. Aristotle said that we are more than the sum of our parts. What you do with the skills you learn will always be more important than having the skills themselves.

Keep doing. Keep creating. Keep changing your world. And know that I am proud of you — each one of you.

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Image from flickr

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.

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.