master or masterpiece?

It’s late August, you are back at school setting up your classroom. Your neighboring teacher pokes her head in to say hi and catch up: “Have you seen your class lists yet? Who do you have?” You hand her the printed lists lying on your desk. As she glances over the lists she shares: “Oh him, he is great! Oh no, not her, she struggles with everything!”

So innocent and so human, to want to know a bit about the students you will work with over the course of the next several months.

***

I promised myself I would try to avoid preconceived ideas about students. I wanted to let them be blank canvases as they entered the class and paint their own story, fresh for the first time. I even went as far to make a poster in big bold letters and post it up at the back of the classroom as a daily reminder to myself of this very thing:

Expectation becomes the realization

While my intentions were good it turned out my practice was not.

A couple of years into teaching I had the chance to work with students I worked with in Science 8 again in Chemistry 11. I was thrilled to have already established relationships in place! As such we had richer conversations, less ground work to cover to create mutual understanding. But with that prior knowledge of each other guess what else crept in?

I learned in talking with students how I had broken my own rule of thumb. In conversation one day, a student said: “Yeah I even got “name of student who always gets A’s” to do my lab for me and you still gave me…”
In that moment I was caught; I had fallen for the name on the page and not the words on the page. I was judging students on what I knew of them rather than the evidence of their learning they were sharing with me. I was marking everything students put a pen on and evaluating nothing. Oh I had so much to learn!

My take away that day (beyond the burning shame of being blatantly wrong and floored by how much I had to learn) was…
I needed to look at the evidence and not the person presenting it, regardless of what I knew of them, felt about them or had heard about them. I wanted to look for the potential masterpiece…and sometimes it would be crumpled, the spelling atrocious, and handed in late…but it could be a masterpiece! Would I see it?

Today I continue to ask myself when:

  • I read a tweet or a blog…
  • I evaluate or assess…
  • I listen to a student’s idea or suggestion…
  • I choose to retweet or share a blog…
  • I sit in a meeting…
  • I read student work on the crumpled or torn paper…

What am I reacting to? What am I really evaluating? What am I connecting to? What do I base my opinions on?

What do you react and connect to?

The master or the masterpiece?

When I grow up

Neoteny, one of my favorite words, means the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood: idealism, experimentation and wonder. In this new world, not only must we behave more like children, we also must teach the next generation to retain those attributes that will allow them to be world-changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Joi Ito

 

When I grow up I’ll invent make a big mess day, where you don’t have to clean up your project till you are all done and making a mess is expected.

When I grow up I’ll let curiosity be my trusty guide. I’ll remember how it feels to have your own burning questions and not even want an answer; just want a way to discover.

When I grow up I’ll remember how not to worry about making mistakes and how I did everything I loved without self-judgment. I’ll remember how I could be a ballerina, an artist and a scientist all in the same day.

When I grow up, I’ll remember how to be kooky and silly. I’ll remember after being silly it is a piece of cake to settle down.

When I grow up, I’ll remember the black journal I saved my money to buy and how excited I was to fill it with my learning when I got to “real” school.

When I grow up I am going to remember to never take myself or my job too seriously. I’ll remember how it is possible to move on when something does not work out my way.

When I grow up I’ll remember the things I love to do are the things I need to do, everyday. I’ll remember those things are the things that make life delicious, delectable and possible.

When I grow up I’ll remember how my enthusiasm and curiosity sometimes made me loud, rambunctious and full of energy. I’ll remember how enthusiasm looks and feels and embrace it on the spot with open arms.

When I grow up I’ll remember to daydream, imagine and create. I’ll remember how big my dreams were and are. I’ll remember how vivid my imagination was and is. I’ll remember how easy it was to create.

When I grow up, I’ll remember.
What will you remember when you grow up?

)

Change your words to change your mind

Some days you need to hear encouraging words to get you back on track or re-frame a challenging moment. As classroom teachers we spend most days as a solitary adult and some of the most important conversations we might have are with ourselves. Our self-talk on challenging days can be our worst enemy:

“If only I had said…”
“I should have done …”
“I am a crappy teacher, because… ”
“I am so frustrated with….”
“That student is being so rude to ME.”
“I totally messed up!!”

Or our self-talk can be a tool we rely on like a trusty teaching strategy or structure. For me purposeful self-talk has stopped me from making a mountain out of a mole hill (most times), prevented engagement in non-productive conflict and reminded me to be empathetic instead of judgmental.

What words do you use to navigate life’s inevitable hurdles?
Do you have favorite sayings or catch phrases you use again and again?

Some of mine are:

1. You are enough

It’s Sunday night, you’ve just had a great weekend with family and friends. You consider your mental list of things you hoped to accomplish for school Monday morning. You begin to feel disappointed with yourself: you should have done _____ .  AS a result tomorrow is going to be awful! You begin to lose perspective and react with plans to get up super early. In those moments remind yourself…you are enough.
Your enthusiasm, your love of the job, your empathy, and the hard work you have already invested are enough.

 2. Your mistakes are the stepping-stones for your learning journey

You are asked to present to the staff. You hate presenting in front of people but decide to take the opportunity and challenge yourself. The presentation day comes and you are ready. In fact you are over ready. The presentation goes great but you make one small mistake, unnoticed by all. You mentally “beat yourself up” over it and begin to re-frame the presentation as a failure.
Those mistakes, no matter how big or small, are the paving stones of your learning leading you forward.
Step on them boldly and proudly: you are a learner!

3. This too will pass

The bad day, the bad mood, the bad moment, even the bad week or month. It will pass, it will, look ahead and beyond.
Look out to the farthest horizon…it will pass.

4. Everyone has their bag of rocks

You are having the worst day, the worst luck, and the worst of everything. Remember to consider what are the challenges facing your students and your colleagues? Each has their own unique bag of rocks they carry. Instead of counting your rocks, consider which can you help them lose, which can you carry for them, and which can you pulverize into fine sand?
We each have our bag of rocks.

5. This is not about you

You are at the photocopier. A colleague comes along and starts in at you for not replacing the toner, fixing the jam or some other problem you did not cause.
Just know in that moment this is not about you. Look beyond you and into them.
This is not about you.

6. This does measure your efficacy 

The messy desk, the unwashed glassware (a science teacher’s nemesis), or the piece of equipment you did not put away… yet…again.
These do not measure your ability as a teacher, your connection with students. Don’t use them as such. Go back to #1.

7. You catch more bees with honey

When you start to get down on your students and begin to have a series of blaming thoughts: my students are lazy, my students don’t care etc. Remember you will always catch more bees with honey. Getting angry or frustrated with your students won’t fix the problem.
Inviting them in with a new positive frame might.
Bees like honey.

8.  You are bigger than this

In those moments when your ego comes out ready to fight, when you see your anger or frustration rising.
See the feeling and let it move through you.
You are bigger than this. You are.

9. This day is over. A new one begins tomorrow

As each day closes out, find “bubble bath” time to reflect on what went well and the challenge. Close the chapter on the day and look forward to starting the next day fresh.
The next day is new and ready for you to start again and anew.

10. Next time…

When you did paper mâché with the kids and the glue went everywhere; when a water fight broke out with the new spray bottles (and yes this did happen, next time I won’t say: Don’t use those spray bottles to spray each other!”); when you photocopy the test but leave out the last page; when the perfectly crafted explanation made no sense.
Think next time.
Next time...
you will know how to deal with this, next time you will be ready, next time you will change the tricky part of the activity.

 

 

How do you talk assessment?

“The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to a student but goes on inside students…
Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school.
How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger

***

Trying to change assessment practices in your classroom? Where do you start? How to begin?

Part of changing my assessment practice was driven by altering the words I used with students. When I first embarked on this change, I was intentional and purposeful with “assessment talk.” Like learning a new language, I had to stop and think rather than reflexively rely on words I had used in the past. I found the intentional and consistent use of these words over several months helped to shift both my mind-set and students’.

Previously, my “assessment talk” had consisted of numbers on a spreadsheet, printed up, neatly tacked on the classroom wall and emailed to students and parents. I saw numbers as unemotional, objective and transparent. I believed sharing numbers frequently made me an effective teacher. Over time I realized I had blurred together assessment (which comes from the Latin assessus meaning to sit besideand evaluation. Regretfully, the predominant use of numbers to talk assessment, did not help students learn at all. Numbers signaled the learning as done and the numeric calculation was my evaluation of it. Numbers indicated a finality which made the focus of class culture centered around how to collect of points…rather than on understanding, exploring and unpacking the cognitive processes occurring for and inside each student. To explore learning with students, numbers had to be removed from the everyday conversations and I had to find simple direct words to signal this shift.

I now realize my practice of using numbers to talk assessment prevented, rather than encouraged, meaningful dialogue about student learning. Evaluation of the student learning had to happen later in the learning journey (when students were ready) after a significant amount assessment. But how to talk assessment? What words could replace the numbers I had grown dependent on? I had to find them. I had to practice them. I had to learn a new language to talk assessment with students

***

Below are some of my favorite catch phrases and convo snippets:

1. This is not for marks…it is for learning.
Student’s query to any activity is “Is it for marks?” Students use this question to decide on where to focus their efforts. To shift their focus to learning strategies rather than on point accumulation strategies, activities need to be about learning and in the service of student learning … choose to do these activities in the service of your learning not in the name compliance and playing school.

2. YET…
When a student says: “I am not good at writing, reading, graphing.” Offer the simple word, yet, to the end of their fixed mindset sentence to change it to a growth mindset one (Watch Carol Dweck’s short video on yet here).

3. Explain to me how you think your learning is going in this unit, topic, or semester.
If I had a dollar for every “What is my mark?” question I have heard I would be a rich woman! Every time a student asked me this question I had to clearly put it back on them. They had to be able to talk about and describe how the course was going for them and if they couldn’t explain this, then we had to spend more time talking about their learning (this is not to say I withheld marks, it is to say evaluation has to come when it is relevant and useful to do so).

4. Are you ready to show me what you know/understand? When do you think you can be ready to demonstrate your understanding? How can I help you get there?
Many struggling students are not willing to engage; it is too risky to try only to fail yet again. Allowing students decide when they are ready to be evaluated removes the stress and game playing that goes along with avoiding it.

5. What does quality…writing, presentation, conclusion, lab design, questioning…look like, sound like, and feel like?
Students need to recognize what quality looks like, feels like and sounds out.  Understanding quality comes from experiencing the process without fear of  being penalized for not being at quality yet. Students need to know they will get another chance or opportunity, they need to know they have time to grow and develop towards quality.

6. Show me your evidence for/of your learning.
I recognize my learning  when I develop a mental picture or story about of a concept or idea. When I can explain or map out this picture, I feel like I have done some learning. The mental picture is my evidence, the tracks of my thinking. Students need to make tracks of their thinking in their own way and have a chance to talk about this process. Learning is not a set copied teacher notes, or a set of worksheets they mechanically and thoughtlessly filled in.

7. Show me how you figured it out.
Asking students to unpack their thinking, makes learning about what is going on in their brains, not something a teacher does or does not do. 

8. What is your plan to get there?
Many students are uncertain how to navigate to quality. Providing them opportunities to make and talk about specific actions portrays learning not as accidental (or just for gifted people) but requires strategies, habits, and specific situations. Many variables contribute to learning. Students need to know and decide what variables they need to support their learning.

9.  Let me know when you are ready for feedback.
Having the opportunity and time to do quality work is intrinsically satisfying. Quality work is not work done by gifted students but by students who have the gift of time with useful and specific feedback.

10. What do you notice about your brain when….you get confused, you feel confident, you are engaged, you are make sense of the problem.
Talking about what goes on inside our brains, invites students to connect with the mental process they are experiencing.  Learning is a process going on actively inside of them rather than something passively happening to them.

What are your fav words or phrases to use with students? What words have shifted your mindset and invited students to explore their learning as a journey rather than a destination?

Working as team destroyed me.

“As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it… Knowledge is becoming inextricable from – literally unthinkable without – the network that enables it.” 

 David Weinberger

I transitioned this fall to our district’s Instructional Leadership Team which consists of 6 teachers and our principal. Previously, I have thought of myself as collaborative…yet, I am not sure if I would have called myself a team player, or if in fact, I understood what “team player” really implied or entailed. To be honest (and honesty is one of the main reasons I write here) I am not sure if I fully believed a “team approach” was effective or necessary.

Collaborative, embedded and responsive work with teachers in a continuous and exquisitely personalized cycle of co-teaching, co-teaching and co-learning…is new. In the past, teachers were meant to figure it out…by ourselves. Alone.

The steep grind up the first 90 days has worn down aspects of me and to healthy extents, I have had to let go of my ego, my expertise, and my confidence. In its place I have had to trust our vision, our work and our inter-contentedness as team…it has scared the pants off me. I do intentionally seek change for its vital role in maintaining flexibility and responsiveness to life, but (you heard it coming) I did not fully anticipate the feeling of loss in giving up my egocentric persona at work. Many “me treads” had to be worn off; burly treads are only useful in very specific terrains!

I don’t want to be a me-less, ego-less drone in a state of group think. No. It is a matter of willingly and knowingly standing up on the proverbial table, crossing my arms as I turn around and fall backwards into team. Completely.

I trust. Completely. I sink in. Completely. I co-create our vision. Completely.

Working as team has destroyed:

1. My “what’s in it for me” mindset:  As team, I see my choices beyond simply what’s in it for me. I look up to see how my choices impact and play out for others. I look beyond the small gains and out, towards a more long-term stability of “we.”

2. Working the veneer: In a team, there is not much you can “hide”. You cannot polish up the surface and be good to go. To create a shine requires of me to be solid and consistent throughout.

3. The burn out fluctuations: Alone, I gauged my commitments and energies for myself, by myself. When I got tired or overwhelmed, oh well. In a team I see how my ability or inability to create a sustainable balance directly impacts others.

4. The cloudy mirror: Alone, it was easy to look in a cloudy mirror. Together, the mirror needs to be clear, I see myself mirrored in others. I see how the ripples of my moods, thoughts and feelings impact, very directly, the team.

5. A protective over confidence: Alone, I worked to maintain a stance of expert. Together as team, not one of us is expert. We together create a collective, inter-connected, and inter-dependent expertise. 

I still miss the sharpness of me, the brightness of 100% me…I am sinking into the depth, comfort and shared wisdom of team.

Do you know your fortune?

I’m not a fortune-teller, I won’t be bringing news
Of what tomorrow brings, I’ll leave that up to you
I’m not a fortune-teller, don’t have a crystal ball
I can’t predict the future, can’t see nothing at all

                                                 Maroon 5

When I started teaching I became distinctly aware of 2 streams:

1. The stream I move in with my students, that we create together.

2. The larger surrounding stream that includes politics (government, staff, district), professional development etc. Basically anything that does not involve my direct interactions with my students.

I decided early on that I wanted to spend the majority of my time in stream 1. From my perspective, the less I dipped into stream 2 the more true to my heart, interactions in stream 1 could remain. I still feel this way 22 years later, though of course, there is trickle over from one stream to the other.

Over the last few weeks I have been trying to pinpoint for myself where I find value in my work. Sometimes in moments of self-pity, I wallow in feeling undervalued as a classroom teacher. I think I am prone to this wallowing of late as the purpose and meaning of academics (content) and school in general, is going through an identity crisis. Our education system has yet to clearly and consistently articulate what we value and what is valuable. Ghosts of education past still continue to haunt our halls and minds; these further add to the confusion. In this era of transition it takes time for new values to be adopted and understood. Over in stream 1 with my students, I feel new and strong currents ripping through.  It seems readily apparent to students, that static outdated knowledge is no longer valuable and as such they give it little respect.

I get that. I am ready for that.

With knowledge and content devalued and no new collective value set in town, there is a scramble to find and create meaning. Daily. Over in stream 1 it feels urgent; help these kids navigate this stream, quick they are going down! What is mind blowingly confusing to me, is since stream 2 heavily bleeds into stream 1 (good thing I defined that stream idea right off the get go!) the outdated artifacts on how to navigate the stream from the good old days still remain, everywhere. The big, looming framework that defines survival in stream 2 (and by default defines survival in stream 1) still stands, rickety and worn, but still looming over us in stream 1.

So for example when working with inquiry labs or open ended projects with my grade 12 students, there is no external infrastructure that supports the idea that these type of activities are valuable. The structures in stream 2 still speak loudly, high marks are what matter most, find out how to get the highest mark and game the system. The disconnect comes in that students do not intuitively find value in the marks game, they just feel trapped by it, and many feel an immense pressure to engage in the game.

They want something (success) but they don’t really value it (as it is defined). They aren’t sure if they want something else because the societal value is not obvious to them.

A clash, clanging loudly in discordance, between the evidence that times have changed, that students have changed, how they want and need to learn has changed with the Pavlovian triggers strewn across the landscape of both school and society that still point to another time and another value set.

In stream 1 this clash requires crazy glue and a massive clamp, in an effort to keep these 2 wildly divergent parts together. Simultaneously it demands a moving away, an abandoning of sorts, trying to move stream 1 far enough away from stream 2 to find some pure unpolluted waters.

 

Do you feel caught in the middle? How do you bridge this transitional time?

________________________________________________

Somewhere late last night it hit me. I was looking for value in the wrong places. I was looking for my value out in stream 2. Where my value lies is with my students, my time with them. I feel valuable when with them. Regardless of what is valued over in stream 2, I find value here in stream 1.

My value lies in my students, they are my fortune. I will follow their lead down our stream.

The Chasm of Change: How do we bridge the gap?

Lately I have been feeling conflicted…

On the one hand I feel very excited about the change on the horizon that I see, but on the other I feel very frustrated with the speed at which we are moving to the horizon.

I now have a voice in my own learning and feel empowered by this but yet feel stifled and controlled in certain situations that seem contrived to meet someone else’s agenda.

I work with people who share the load and infuse me with ideas and I am inspired to bring my best game but I continue to struggle with those who want the work of learning done for them.

I am continually blown away by the talents and passion for life of students but see the status quo of the system as squelching this passion.

I have conversations that light up my imagination to dream the impossible and then am left bereft with silence in between.

I feel immense joy when working with students in an authentic manner and then feel intense sadness when I come across students who have checked out and aren’t coming back.

I have a new-found taste for risk but the flavour of the month is safe and sound and make everyone comfortable.

When I go out in the morning, leave my class, kids and all, behind, to hear about __________________ as being innovative and how it might change my classroom practice…

I know in a heart-sucking moment, that the cat is out of the bag, it is out, and is not going back in. I could not make it I even if I tried.

And this is not about better or judgement, it is about wondering… How did I get here? Why did I come?

What if I can’t go back? (Half of me wanting to keep going and the other half wanting to return, and feeling guilt for the uncertainty.)

It’s about wondering how do we bridge this widening gap? Can we bridge this gap? Do we build a bridge, is there one to be built?

What if this chasm continues to grow?

Do you see a widening gap? If so what do you do to bridge it?