“What was the defining moment you decided to be a teacher?” #Youredustory

“What do I want to do?” I didn’t start off wanting to be a teacher. While I had teachers who inspired, invested, and impacted my life, it didn’t occur to me, especially while I was in school, that I would want to emulate their vocation. I wanted to be doing things – not teaching others how to do things. Yes, honestly, in my early years, that’s how I looked at it.

My list of dream job choices included running a theatre company, delivering the evening news, or writing a best selling novel. However, after I graduated from college, I found myself going in a different direction and re-asking “what do I want to do?” I went back to school to earn my teaching license, but it still felt like a back-up plan. My career path continued with twists and turns and while I did work with kids I didn’t teach in a classroom right away.

In fact, it was not until I had my own kids that I had the “defining moment.” I was standing in the parking lot at my kid’s school talking to the principal and feeling frustrated. The reasons for the frustration don’t matter as much as the epiphany that I had when I realized — I could do this teaching thing and I would be really good at it. I’m still not sure that it was the “right” inspiration, but it was the inspiration that I needed to make it happen. Reflecting on that, it’s easier to understand now who I am as a teacher.

I love the challenge. Bring on the kids that are hard to teach. No excuses – no blaming – let’s figure this thing out and get these kids reading, thinking, and passionate about learning. I never feel like I am staying behind teaching the stuff that other do. Instead I know that I’m doing really important stuff– stuff that’s not all that easy to do– stuff that really makes a difference. It’s not glamorous – honestly, hanging out with middle school kids is the opposite of glamorous, but it is, as it turns out, that answer to “what I want to do?”

My not-so-easy-to-write answer to, “WHY do I do it?” #Youredustory

“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it” – Simon Sinek

Why do I do what I do?

First, what do I do…?

I am a teacher, and mother, and writer and it’s a long list, but within that there must be a something that defines me a bit.

What is it that those who cheer me and those that are frustrated with me would both say?

Perhaps it is that  – I challenge… good or bad – I’ll admit and own it – I challenge…

In my defense, I challenge myself as well. I’m willing to just try something. I experiment. I get in over my head and have to find my way out. I take on too much and I am always on a journey – never feeling like I’ve arrived.

Normally, it’s for want of company or at least understanding that I put out the challenge. “Have you read…?” “What if we looked at it another way…” “I used to think that too, but now I think…”

The words are out before I have time to swallow them back.

Why do I do that?

Wouldn’t it be easier to go along with the crowd? Deflect the blame… make excused… talk about what’s wrong with kids these days…

“Ouch”

I’ve been thinking about it and I can point to a DuFour conference and a Wormeli book, or two, that gave me a push. That graduate program in Instructional Leadership didn’t help. Let’s not even talk about the light bulb moment that comes with my son’s dyslexia…

The “why” does come from all of the above experiences, but if we are going to be totally honest it comes from being that kids in the classroom that never – ever – ever — passed a spelling test. I read every book I could get my hands on, I wrote essays for the fun of it, I was a hungry learner, but I had a glitch that I didn’t understand.

A gap?

A learning style?

A reason for people to laugh.

It was something that didn’t make bubble test easy. It stood in the way of being able to retrieve multiplication facts on a timed test. Most embarrassing – It made me a very frustrated student in a one and done, 20 words a week – we are moving on and you failed school system.

I hated that,

and now, I recognize the precarious a situation I was in. In some ways I hated school, I didn’t trust right away, and I could recognize a “got cha” grader from a mile away.

I didn’t know about learning styles or brain development back then. All I knew what that I was really smart, but not every teacher was interested in finding that out. If I challenged them as a student – they were likely to respond negatively. I can only imagine how kids who provide much more significant challenges feel every time they walk into a classroom. I am not willing to make them feel the way I did just because I am now in the position to do so.

I challenge. I do. I need to learn to be gentle. To respond from empathy. To honor people were they are. Yes, I’ll own that too. I’m working on it.

But if it helps to know why, if it inspires buy in, if it explains who I am… than I’ll go back to that raw feeling of failure and frustration that came every Friday afternoon when the teacher said, “take out a piece of loose leaf paper and number it from one to twenty.”

I don’t want to be the teacher that puts a sense of “no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I will never be successful at this” in the minds of my students.

“Ouch.” I know.

I feel like I can be someone different. Someone who inspires and supports. Someone who keeps hope alive and reminds that “we are just not there yet” – we teachers, we students, we community of learners…”

It’s my belief that we will to get there.

Together.

That answers… why I do it?

Define Learning in 100 Words…

Learning is the process of change or growth that comes from life experiences. Intelligence is malleable – what we focus on we will learn. The life long learning that shows up in mission statements is about creating and maintaining a positive attitude to learning. It’s a passion for learning that comes from deep within. Learning because the learner wants to: it is a deliberate and voluntary act. It’s a cycle of motivation, examination, reflection, and growth that continues beyond the classroom door. As a teacher, I create a culture that nurtures a learning mindset – acknowledging that I too am a learner.

One Word That Inspires Me in My Classroom – “Grace”

When I teach I strive to do it with grace. No, I’m certainly not a ballerina floating about the classroom. When I think of grace I think of a deeper meaning – one that goes with words like favor, good will, mercy, and honor.

Do I have a favorite student? Honestly, I believe that if I’ve done things right they all think they’re a favorite. My goal is to be a safe spot for the kids – a place where they can check in and feel connected. Middle school kids move all day and crave a place where they are unconditionally welcome. I truly believe that if I can make that connection, then I have a chance at growing a passionate learner – which is even more important than any curriculum or content.

Competition in the classroom that makes learning fun and supports healthy motivation is one thing – but I draw the line when it starts looking like sorting students. Good will for me means that I am going to do my best to ensure that all my students learn at high levels, and I will hold myself accountable to that. When the kids know that’s the goal, then the collaboration and support grows as well. We become a community of learners.

Mercy. My own kids are the same age as my students and I can attest that they really don’t have a ton of control over their own lives. Things go wrong– they run out of time – organizational skills fall apart – there is a game or extra practice that they didn’t expect– or even worse I ask them to babysit or insist they actually practice that instrument—there are rarely enough hours in the day. Mercy, for me is recognizing when a student is not there yet – and the reason for the “yet” may or may not sound valid to my ears – it doesn’t really matter. I’m trying to get over the need to judge or snap back with a “got-cha” and instead help them to make a new plan.

Kids learn differently. They occasionally sweat the small stuff and overlook the big stuff. Each comes to my classroom with their own story to tell, their own baggage, their own disappointments, and their own dreams. When I honor them as individuals and their work as precious pieces of learning evidence the tone of my day changes. There is an investment that we are willing to make in each other and the work we will do together. I feel and act more like a coach than a boss and I’m more willing to celebrate their individuality even if it does make record keeping and lesson planning a greater challenge.

This is where I am right now as a teacher. It’s a reflection on my vocation in this moment – a snap shot of my thinking. I have not always been here and I hope that a year from now I am further along on the journey. For me in 2015, I’m feeling the gifts of grace.

Why Do I Grade?

“A grade represents a clear and accurate indicator of what a student knows and is able to do – mastery. With grades, we document the progress of students and our teaching, we provide feedback to students and their parents, and we make instructional decisions regarding the students.”

-Rick Wormeli (Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 103)

I attended a two-day conference with Rick Wormeli this week. When I have an amazing growth opportunity, all by myself – it can be really annoying for my peers who are not on the same vibration. So instead of driving them crazy I rushed home on Friday night to try to make sense of it all through writing… Why do I grade?

It’s easy right – I grade because that’s what I am paid to do – it’s in the teacher job description. However, I’m thinking deeper than that, looking at what I hope to accomplish with my grades, and from the perspective of my students determining if am I successful.

At the conference Wormeli identified six things teachers try to accomplish with grades, which he then separated into two categories (Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 102):

  • To document student and teacher progress
  • To provide feedback to the student and family, and
  • To inform instructional decisions

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  • To motivate students
  • To punish students
  • To sort students

He suggests that the top three are useful, but the bottom three are questionable. I totally agree—after all this was my second Wormeli conference and honestly I drank the Kool-Aid the first time. However, I don’t think I always get it right, so I decided to ask my 8th grade students a few questions to find out how I am doing.

In an impromptu Friday afternoon discussion they easily identified documenting progress and providing feedback as reasons to grade. However, the majority pointed to “motivating students” as being the third most significant reason that teacher’s grade.

After thinking on this I began questioning… Do I want students to have intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation? Our mission says “life long learning…” Research says the will to learn (or lifelong learning) is an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its rewards in its own exercises. Grades are by definition – if used to motivate – extrinsic motivation. Am I meeting my personal and / or school mission as a teacher if I’m motivating through my grade book?

Okay – it was time to dig a little deeper. I threw together a survey and collected some quick very non-scientific data (wow – those iPad are cool!) Here’s what I found out –

  • 100% of my students understood that if I marked grades down because they are late I am miss-reporting their approximation to mastery.
  • They were split half and half when if asked if the purpose of school is either
    • to determine who is smart enough to go to college, or
    • to ensure that all students learn at high levels no matter what it takes.
  • The majority of students supported the idea that everyone who met the standard should receive credit for doing so. They were not hung up on how long it takes individuals or how many re-dos it would take.
  • When I asked if grades motivated them to want to learn the split was nearly 50 / 50, however after we talked about many students sited that the grades pushed them to do the work in class – they were not actually excited to learn the content.
  • Just for fun I asked them how long it would take them to learn to play the bagpipes. Again the majority answered that there was no way to know how long it would take. Within our discussion they were able to connect that with the idea that there was no way to know how long it would take them to learn how to do anything.
  • The last question was the one that broke my heart as a teacher. After seeing Wormeli the first time I continued to put in zeros but used a four-point scale. Thinking about motivation, I asked how they felt when they saw a zero in the grade book. Here is a list of their words:

Sick * Panicked * Upset * Ashamed * Bad * Stressed * “Shit” * Discouraged * Dumb * “Like I’m not going anywhere” * Discouraged * Depressed * Angry * Disappointed * Scared * Don’t Care * Worried * Exhausted * Grounded for life Frustrated * Like Quitting * Embarrassed * Desperate to get the grade up

Clearly I get a response, however I’m left wondering if it’s worth the cost. The words above hardly sound like that zero is inspiring passionate learning. Instead I can see how much it is actually manipulating the emotions of my students to get their work handed in. Typically a zero is in the grade book because of missing work – almost never because they really are showing no evidence toward mastery. If that was the case I would be quick to go back to my own teaching an figure out what I did wrong, or I would meet with them to set up a re-do before I published the grade.

Again, I go back to the goal of grading, the mission of my school, and my own personal mission as a teacher. I want my students to be passionate, inspired, life-long learners. I’m not willing to settle for anything less than that. If my grading practices promote the opposite feelings than it’s on me to make some changes. No blaming the students.

So where do I go from here? How do I get the data I need without the push of a zero? Thanks to Wormeli I’m on the path to figuring that out, but for now I’m so glad to have students who are patient with me while I continue to learn along side them.

Supporting Creativity Through Interactive Notebooks

The Stanford Creativity: Music to my Ears online class has me thinking a lot about creativity. One big take-away is that creativity is something that takes practice. When someone says, “I’m just not creative” it means that they have not practiced being creative enough to feel confident about it.

When this describes whole organization it’s truly a problem. In an article titled Working Creativity, by Mark Batey a case is made for creativity at the heart of the skill sets needed for the future.

As a teacher creativity is a skill that I try to bring out in my students. One strategy that has really made a difference for me is the use of interactive notebooks. Right now students are using them to write research papers and I am really excited about how well they keep everyone focused and moving along. I’ve designated each page of the notebook to be one baby step in the process and tried to encourage students to both be creative and to follow directions.

I’ll be posting photos from our unit, but first I thought I would share a few resources that I’ve been stalking for inspiration…

Dawn Miller at IBTEACHINU Language Arts

Randy Seldomridge at The Middle School Mouth

Katie at Following my Heart to First Grade

 at New Teacher Resources

If you have others website to suggest or ideas for how to develop creativity through interactive notebooks I’d love to hear about them –  please pass them on!

 

 

 

Music to the Rescue! Assignment 3 of Creativity: Music to My Ears

 

I’ve been participating in an online Creativity course hosted by Tina Seelig at Stanford University. Seelig is the author of inGenius, a book I am also reading. Rather than do the assignments online, i’ve decided to do them with my students. However, this week we are on Easter break, so I drafted my four children ages 7- 13 to help brain storm.

Here is the assignment:

Clearly define – a problem that you want to solve. It can be a personal problem or a social problem. Be careful to frame the problem thoughtfully so that it isn’t too narrow or too broad. Make sure to read the paragraph above about picking a brainstorming topic, and watch the Reframing video for guidance on this.

Once your team has framed a problem, together you should brainstorm to generate at least 100 ideas for ways that MUSIC can help solve that problem.

We decided to think about how music can be used at school to develop literacy – especially in middle school students and this is what we came up with…

  1. Listen to Pandora study music when reading.
  2. Compare reading music to reading text.
  3. Have students make book trailers with music in the background.
  4. Study famous song lyrics as poetry.
  5. Get an MP3 song for every book read in a school year.
  6. Read about music history.
  7. Read and watch a musical.
  8. Create a classroom musical based on a book.
  9. Teach students to “read” music.
  10. Create music typewriter game – Maybe a iPad App.
  11. Play book based move themes during reading time (Harry Potter is a favorite).
  12. Create multi-sensory phonics games for struggling readers.
  13. Read about events sited within songs (We Didn’t Start the Fire would be an example).
  14. Teach students how to write their own songs.
  15. Make games where note letters spell words.
  16. Make a song to learn the steps of the writing process.
  17. Use songs to learn vocabulary words.
  18. Make a jingle for a book read.
  19. Create word puzzle using notes to write a paragraph.
  20. Attach a CVC code to classroom books where students find similar theme in books and songs.
  21. Writing prompt – Choose a song and write about what it means.
  22. Choose a book and brainstorm songs that could make it a musical (Mary Poppins is an example)
  23. Write a sentence using only the letters A-G – then play the sentence on the piano.
  24. Read about famous composers.
  25. Learn to play an instrument.
  26. Use rhythm to teach fluency.
  27. Use percussion instruments when reading poetry.
  28. Use percussion instrument to learn phonics – sounding out word parts.
  29. Play author musical chairs.
  30. Keep a journal for music practice.
  31. Learn about music during different eras.
  32. Study musical styles and compare them to parts of the book.
  33. Compare music eras to art and literature written at the same time.
  34. Write a jingle to learn the parts of speech.
  35. Match note names to notes on the staff.
  36. Let students sign for oral assessments.
  37. Make a scavenger hunt based on solving musical riddles.
  38. Make up rhyming songs
  39. Make up alliteration songs
  40. Find vocabulary words in songs.
  41. Songs often have a pattern – like A B A C – Write a story using a music pattern.
  42. Put memoires to music.
  43. Write the refrain to your research paper – Put your thesis statement to music.
  44. Give speeches about composers.
  45. Find songs about the topic you are learning about in a class.
  46. Write lyrics / poetry using new vocabulary.
  47. Play classical music during free writes.
  48. Sing along with recordings of literacy-based songs
  49. Write a poem or reflection about how a piece of music makes you feel.
  50. Study with music to help with recall.
  51. Let students play games on websites like San Francisco Symphony Kids, Dallas Symphony Orchestra Kids, or New York Philharmonic Kids
  52. Compare and contract the emotions of a character to popular songs.
  53. Study the brain science behind how music literacy helps reading.
  54. Study how music affects emotions (scary music in a movie for example).
  55. Use music vocabulary and dynamics to improve reading fluency.
  56. Let students listen to music without words when studying or working independently.
  57. Mix music literacy stations in with classroom language arts stations.
  58. Learn about storytellers and how they use music.
  59. Invite a composer as a guest speaker to compare music and literature revision strategies.
  60. Mark a speech with dynamics symbols for how the speaker is to present.
  61. Read and listen to storybooks based on song lyrics (Puff the Magic Dragon).
  62. Research the history behind holiday songs.
  63. Perform music in public as a way to feel confident giving presentations.
  64. Learn about different cultures though global music styles.
  65. Draw to music.
  66. Teach preschool students nursery rhythms
  67. Reflect on visualization from music compared to imagining a character or setting.
  68. Compare book genres to music genres.
  69. Study religion and history through music.
  70. Discuss the influence that a song can have on a culture.
  71. Conduct and report on a survey that studies music preferences.
  72. Analyze the author / composer purpose (To persuade, inform, entertain, explain).
  73. Analyze how a song is organized – Comparison / contrast, chronological, argument / support.
  74. Analyze word choice in songs.
  75. Compare dynamics to punctuation and conventions.
  76. Talk to composers and songwriter about where they get their ideas.
  77. Work on music pitch to build phonological awareness (in first and second languages).
  78. Study historic events through song re-makes (The Too Late to Apologize uTube video with the Founding Fathers)
  79. Compare the 6 traits of writing to the traits of music.
  80. Compare effective repetition in music and literature.
  81. Analyze how variety keeps interest.
  82. Compare and contract two musician’s voices
  83. How to musician improvise? What does this teach us about writing or speaking?
  84. Analyze chord tones compared to word choice.
  85. Why did the composer choose a certain note / chord? (Saving Mr. Banks movie – Spoon Full of Sugar – the unexpected – note goes up).
  86. Compare sentence fluency to melody – how do rhythm and flow add to a text?
  87. Consider transitions between themes and sections of music – compare them to transition words in writing.
  88. Create a KWL chart for a popular song
  89. Give student examples of fluent reading and with expression.
  90. Listen to Disney songs and look for clues about character traits.
  91. Practice unison reading to improve listening and pacing.
  92. Create classroom chants for hard to remember concepts.
  93. Play music between classes that is fun and inspirational.
  94. Compare sight-reading strategies to reading aloud.
  95. Compare song titles and book titles to anticipate what it’s about.
  96. Create a web or mind-map of a song.
  97. Write new words to a well known song (Think Weird Al)
  98. Compare perseverance in learning to play an instrument to learning to read – both take practice!
  99. Teach inference using a new piece of music.
  100. Practice active listening to build listening skills and an ear for pitch and fluency.
  101. Encourage passion for learning using music to make literacy fun!

Perseverance

It’s been a quiet morning here. As I work on grad school and lesson plans, my 13-year-old son is reading nearby.

Cole reading

A few weeks ago S.A. Bodeen spoke at the English Festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The students attending had read her book The Raft, but she spoke about quite a bit about one of her first books, The Compound at the event. She emphasized to the students how many times she had to write and re-write to get the book ready for publication. It was a huge challenge that she gave up on multiple times, but eventually successfully published.

I am go grateful for Bodeen’s powerful message. As a parent and teacher I am around 11-14 year-olds who are constantly struggling to preserver. It’s an age when they are discovering who they are as well as how others see them. Far too often coaches, administrators, teachers, music directors, and parents give up on them – emphasizing natural ability over hard work. When piano lessons get hard – it’s time to quit and try something new. This seems to be the mentality rather than, “head back to the piano bench and try it another 53 times – I bet you’ll get it right with a little hard work.”

My son has had his share of these negative messages sent him and after hearing the author, asked me to buy him a copy of The Compound to have signed. He is a chapter away from finishing up the book – then off to practice violin and later this week his English teacher / mother will have him writing a research paper. It’s part of a busy productive life that will challenge him to preserver if he is to be successful.

Thank you S.A. Bodeen for your wonderful books that help him to be a strong reader, but more important, your message that lets him know working hard a normal, expected part of accomplishing something great. It’s truly a message worth sharing.

Can I teach it?

Typically when I write, it’s because, for a moment at least, I’ve got it all figured out. An epiphany that would make Sean Hennessy impressed – a light bulb moment – whatever has been rolling around in my mind has worked itself out – I’ve got it.

That’s not the case today. Instead, today I’m full of questions.

To sort it all out, I thought I’d seek out some help. Let’s start with an anecdote about my own kids…

Anna is an over achiever. She has a ton of natural ability, and is super coachable. You can show her something one time and that’s it – she’s got it or she is going to figure it out. I don’t want to say things come easy for her because that would deny the hours of hard work and practice she puts into all the things she does – violin, sports, school. She really does work at it with discipline and focus. A good friend of ours love to say she sure has the, “can do attitude.” I’ve also been told she is “super coachable.”

The boys, on the other hand struggle. All the same things are not super easy for them.  They work… they work harder than Anna actually. However, “a natural” is not a word I’d use to describe either of them. They can frustrate the heck out of  coaches and teachers who inevitably compare them to their sister.

As a teacher, I know this situation is not unique. Within families and classrooms there are kids who are easy to teach or coach and then there are the ones that, despite a positive-growth mind don’t “get it” right away.

The danger I see, is that it’s easy to  give up on these kids. It’s easy to see their efforts as mediocrity and stop working with them. They are not failing – a B or C is acceptable – they kind-of get it, the slow and steady progress is good enough. Eventually, however, because they are not easy to teach or coach the message comes that they should think about quitting – soccer, piano lessons, school. Maybe not altogether quite, but certainly a request from the instructor for permission to officially lower the expectation.

I had a tennis coach speak with me just yesterday. “I’d like to set up a private lesson with you daughter.”

“Okay, that would be great. I’d love to set one up for my son as well.”

“We could do that,  but I really think your daughter is the one with the natural talent.”

What I wanted to say was, “Well then, she does not really need the private lesson does she? She’s easy to teach. She’s coachable. She gets it. I know – I’ve heard. How about taking a chance? How about growing as a coach and figuring it out with someone who takes a bit more effort?”

I didn’t say that. Instead I smiled.

I’ve been reading a lot about re-framing and looking at problems from different angles in order to uncover solutions that may not have been apparent upon first analysis. I’ve been reading about passion and teaching and how important it is to get kids jazzed up about what they are learning. I’ve also been letting this all roll around in my brain and I am left with questions…

Can I teach “drive?”

Can I teach  kids how to be more teachable? More coachable?

Can I challenge coaches to take what looks like an average kid and help him becomes an extraordinary kid?

Can the “B” kids become “A” kids? What would  it take? Could those same strategies help the “D” kids become “A” kids?

Where do I start? Who has an idea? I’m ready to figure it out…

5 Ways Parents Inspire Passionate Learning

A few weeks ago, my son had to complete the 3rd grade Habitat Project. He was assigned the desert and did a great job working within a small group to present the life cycle and plant growth in the desert. He was interested in the desert plants and I suggested creating a terrarium. We took advantage of a quiet spring break morning to make it happen.

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The experience inspired my top five ways parents inspire their passionate learners:

  1. Build on their interests or current projects – Ask questions and find out what’s going on in school, on the video game, or in that book they can’t put down. My oldest son asked to play the violin after  learning about Mozart in preschool. I still remember him telling me, “His music is really powerful stuff!” Seven years later, he is still playing and so are my other children.
  2. Find an expert – The world if filled with people passionate people who are willing to share their interests. We found that the local EAA club gives mini classes on aviation on Saturday mornings. After studying gliders at school, the boys loved taking a ride in a small aircraft. Even better, I found two volunteers to visit my classroom!
  3. Indulge their curiosity – My 4th grade daughter wanted to know about Shakespeare when her teacher made a joke about his poetry in class. I could not believe she sat through Romeo and Juliet on Netfix, but decided it was interest enough to plan a trip to Spring Green, WI to see a show at the
  4. Learn together – When my school developed a 1:1 iPad program, my own kids were the best teachers available to show me the potential. As I write now, there is a motion picture being produced in the backyard with my iPad and the neighbor kids. It’s amazing to see what they can do and even more exciting to find out what new things they are going to teach me.
  5. Have fun – My 3rd grader has struggled to become a fluent reader. Some of the best tools we found are things like shaving cream and marshmallows. That kinesthetic activity helps build and strengthen what he is learning.  Yes, it’s a little messy, but it’s worth it to see him focus and enjoy things like spelling words and multiplication facts.

I really like the following infographic from The Michigan Department Of Education because it shows how important parents are to the educational process. If you want to read more check out, “What Research Says About Parent Involvement in Children’s Education In Relation To Academic Achievement.”

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