The One Mistake to Avoid this School Year

Your best teacher is your last mistake

With the first day of school just around the corner, the end-of-summer-overwhelm is here. In front of you lies a plethora of planning and preparing, sharpening and stacking, cleaning and copying. All tasks that need to, and will (yes will), get done before students arrive.

Yet, in addition to the tasks, there is something just as important to be thinking about. It’s something that the best teachers do. You know it when you see it, but it can be hard to plan for. Before I tell you what it is, let me tell you about my mistake. I sure don’t want you to repeat it!

The Mistake

A couple of years in to teaching, I thought I was doing OK. Lesson plans, grading system, behavior management – check, check, and check. That’s when a school counselor pulled me aside. I hadn’t gone to her; awkwardly, she had the need to come to me.

One of my students wanted to get out of my class. It wasn’t the subject-area, or the difficulty, or the other kids in the class; it was meShe acts like a robot, he said, she never shows any feelings.

I was immediately defensive and bewildered. Here I was, trying so hard to get it all “done” and get it all “right”, and now I had to share myself too! When I calmed down though, I started thinking about the successful teachers at my school. You know, the ones that everyone, from students to families to administration, loves.

The Solution

What were they doing that I wasn’t? How were we so different? What I discovered was that my student was right! These highly effective teachers didn’t stop at lesson plans and behavior management. They also shared their themselves and their humanness. In return, the students responded in ways that I wasn’t experiencing.

Three Examples

Share a Skill

One of my most admired middle school colleagues shares herself through her knowledge of origami. During down time in math class, she talks about the connection between math and the art of paper folding. From there, she teaches her students how to make paper cranes, which are then delivered around campus on special occasions. One fortunate day, I was visited with the gift of a colorful, hand-crafted bird. Along with the delivery came pride-filled, and motivated, students. It was evident that, because their teacher had shared her humanness, these children had come to see themselves as mathematicians, artists, and givers.

Share a Story

An elementary teacher (who I secretly wish I could be!) shares herself in a different way. She told me the story of a student who was recently challenged by state testing. Sitting at the computer, hands still, tears welled up in his eyes. Instead of just telling him to keep going she told him a story, about herself. Recounting her own childhood test-anxiety, this teacher shared how stomach-achy and nerve-racking testing days had been for her; but that she had survived. Then, out to recess he went. You know what happened? The student came back in, sat right down, and typed his essay. This teacher’s willingness to share her humanness inspired perseverance in her young student, in a way that just telling him to try harder never could have.

Share a Passion

There’s a special education teacher that I look up to. Students who go through his classroom face numerous challenges, at school and at home. Now this teacher is an avid cyclist. He gets places faster by bike than I do by car. It’s one of his loves. A few years ago, he had some students that needed movement, and a lot of it. Instead of telling them to settle down, or making them sit at their desks doing tiny exercises, this teacher brought a stationary bike to the classroom. When his students needed a break they could cycle for a few minutes, and then rejoin the group. Through his passion he shared his humanness, and met the needs of his students on their terms.

Your Turn

As you spend these last few days getting ready, please remember not to get so caught up (like I did) in the doing that you forget about who you are as a being. As your primping your room, and priming your lessons, make sure to ponder how you will share your humanness on the first day, and throughout the year.

You never know who you might help by sharing a little bit of yourself! Have an idea about expressing your humanness in the classroom? Write it in the comments.

 

 

 

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Give Yourself Permission – It’s All About YOU

Give yourself permission

 

I know you’re passionate about what you do. And I’m going to bet that sometimes you overdo it. If so, you’re in good company here!

Be Cognizant of the Propensity to Overdo It

When I’ve overdone it, my body tells me. I physically hit a wall, and I have to stop (You know the migraines I’m talking about, right?)

Because it’s July, I’m already thinking about the school year ahead. I bet you have those whispers too. Wondering what day you’ll start getting your room ready. Who will your kids be? How will you hook them on day one? But it’s also important to be thinking about yourself. What will you do to avoid hitting the wall, even in the busiest times, this year? If you don’t, you’ll be no good to anyone.

Give Yourself Permission

This topic has been on my mind a lot this summer. As I stretch myself to do new things, I’m cognizant of the propensity to overdo it. So I tried to think of advice I’d give to new teachers. Those who have yet to go through the full cycle of the year. The most important step I realized, is to give yourself permission. Permission to step away, re-group, and rejuvenate so you can come back fresh and full of joy for those you serve.

Listen Deeply

I hope you’ll take a moment to ponder this. To listen deeply to what it is you’d like to give yourself permission for. What will be your buoy in the coming year? Please share it in the comments. Who knows how many people you’ll touch by sharing your wisdom!

For concrete tips on how to create time for yourself see my guest post on TeacherPop, Teach for America’s blog, 9 Ways Over 9 Months to Create Time for Yourself as a New Teacher“.

 

 

Where Crafting Fiction Meets Cultural Responsiveness

Piece of Paper for crafting fiction

This post delves into an important writing prompt, a crucial read, and how both influence me as an educator and writer. 

I joined Teachers Write! (a free, online, writing course created by author Kate Messner) hoping to foster a latent story-telling ability (Bear with me, I will get to the read!). I’m both unpracticed and uncertain about writing fiction. Nonetheless, come nervousness or foot-dragging I go to the keyboard each day, and write. Until last Wednesday’s assignment. I almost decided not to do it. I re-read it. Read the comments. Walked away. Came back. Read it again. Finally, I tried it out.

It’s not that the other assignments have been easy, they haven’t. But this one was particularly challenging. You see, author Christina Diaz Gonzalessaid to craft “authentic diverse characters…someone unlike you or your background”. My mind immediately went to differences in race, culture, and language. Differences that are complicated. Differences that I’ve been thinking alot about due to Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond.

 

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain
click to purchase

For me, this book has been a game-changer. Truth be told, I’m only half-way through it. However, I can already feel the affects it is having on me as an educator and writer. Here’s a little bit about that.

Culture is critical in the school-lives of students, teachers, and families.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Yet in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain it becomes profound. This is because Hammond demystifies what culture is, why it affects us, and how teachers can guide students in culturally responsive ways.  She does this by pulling back the curtain on the link between our neurology, our hormones, and our views of the world. For teachers, these links are paramount to “getting dependent students of color ready for rigor” (p.34).

Light-bulb-moment – One of the ahas from this book is having a way to categorize and articulate different layers of culture: surface, shallow, and deep.

  • Surface focuses on “observable and concrete elements…such as food, dress, music, and holidays” (p. 22).
  • Shallow “is made up of unspoken rules around everyday social interactions and norms…Nonverbal cummunication that builds rapport and trust…comes out of shallow culture” (p.22).
  • Deep envelops our “unconscious assumptions that govern our worldview…[and has] an intense emotional charge” (p.23).

In teaching – For a long time I had an inkling that adding features of surface culture to a classroom or school might be beneficial, but wasn’t enough.  Understanding cultural layers provides a framework for seeing our students as more than what they celebrate, wear, eat, or listen to. While these things are important, we need to get at the shallow and deep layers so that we can provide instruction that all brains will react to. Fortunately Hammond’s book provides a framework for how to do just that!

In writing – This is critical information when writing about characters that are different from ourselves. It might be easy to research surface layers of culture. But how do we go about excavating the shallow and deep culture of our characters? For me this is an important question, because I believe that without including these layers we run the risk of “unwittingly writing something that might be construed as offensive, inaccurate, or demeaning” (Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Teachers Write, 7/15/15). Lucky for us, in a teacher-writer-friendly-way, Ms. Gonzalez has shared valuable tips and tools for our use.

There is more to write about Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain than I could possibly include in one post. However, I want to share a few more salient topics so that you run out and by this book, now. It will definitely change you.

Additional Topics

  • The effects of socio-political context on intellectual apartheid and dependent learners
  • How poverty is not a culture, and why we need to view it differently
  • Cultural archetypes that all teachers (and teacher-writers) should understand
  • A framework for being a culturally responsive teacher
  • The importance of letting diverse students know we care, and doing so in ways they can relate to
Moving Target     The Red Umbrella     a Thunderous Whisper
Click books to purchase

I also want to highlight the wisdom of author Christina Diaz Gonzalez, and encourage you to read her works. In giving us an assignment to create characters that are different from us, Gonzalez validates the experiences of all children and readers. “We need books that reflect all the faces and facets of the world we live in and you should be writing about them”, she says (Teachers Write, 7/15/15). So thank you, Ms. Gonzalez, for opening my eyes to a new ways of crafting characters. And thank you for sparking deeper thought about working with students to include diversity in their writing.

For more on Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

#edaware – July 2015 join the 8pm CST Sunday Twitter chat

www.ready4rigor.com – Zaretta Hammond’s website/blog

Ready4Rigor Facebook group – Member’s only group started by Zaretta Hammond

For more on diverse writing and books

The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children – white paper from the American Library Association on why diverse collections are needed and what librarians can do

We Need Diverse Books™ – “a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people”

Are Authors Scared to Write Diverse Books? – opinion piece on getting past fear about writing diverse characters, by author Roni Lonin in Huff Post Books

What in the World is Wondering and How the Heck do I Teach it?!

Wonder 3

This post is about wondering and ways to support emergent multilinguals (aka English learners) in their writing development.

I wonder…”

If you’re reading this, it’s safe to say that you know what wondering is. I’m sure you’ve even spent some time doing it. Somehow, along the way, you learned its deep nuances. You know that there’s a little bit of questioning, but not challenge. It’s kind of like pondering but with less drawn-out-thought. When you Google something you wonder about, you’re satisfied with the Wikipedia answer. No further research needed. In the act of wondering our eyes tilt upward, maybe a finger touches the face just below the corner of the mouth. Adults use “wonder” when they are trying to be non-confrontational, leading someone down a path of inquiry. And sometimes it has an ethereal quality. That child-like sprinkle of excitement.

The Assignment

When I received the assignment “An Invitation to Wonder” from Kate Messner I was thrilled. First off, it was an easy thing to start with. All we had to do was write a list of things we wondered about. Maybe, one day, they would even turn into seed ideas for a longer piece. Secondly, it brought me back to something I had long forgotten about. The time I galumphed my way through this exercise with students, many of whom were emergent multilinguals.

Forays into Writer’s Workshop

It was my first foray into teaching writer’s workshop. I was all about idea generation. Listing what we wondered about seemed like a perfect beginning. It was open-ended and student-centered. There was no wrong answer. And there was the enthralling chance that we might end up using our wonderings as research topics. What more could a teacher want?!

And then I felt the disquieting stares. Pencils didn’t move. Bodies were still. Notebooks remained vacant. No writing happened.

Now this wasn’t because my students didn’t know how to wonder. Perhaps they were learning English in addition to having a home language, but it’s not like they didn’t have the trappings of a childhood mind. You know, the curiosity that flits about even during school hours. That wasn’t the issue at all. My students could, and did, wonder. The problem was that they really had no idea what I was asking of them, or how to accomplish it

I had made the assumption that if I told them to write what they wondered, they would do just that. They’re kids, I thought, this will be easy. So I didn’t bother to build in the language scaffolds and supports that my emergent multilingual students needed. Because of that the lesson did not produce much writing. Looking back, there is a lot I would have done differently. Here are three ways I would have changed my lesson:

1. A lesson without examples is no lesson at all

You’re probably face-palming right now because this is so obvious. How many times have you been told that all students, and especially those learning an additional language, need examples? But at the time I was taking a writer’s-workshop-stab-in-the-dark. I didn’t know a lot, and I didn’t know who to turn to. So I tried using old methods to teach new things. If I say it, they will do it.

What I realized is that young writers need strong, student-centered, linguistic examples. I should have modeled how I wondered about winning video-games, about how to get a new skateboard, about if I could have an over-night with my friend. I could have wondered about bigger things too. The problem was, I hadn’t planned for wonder-modeling. I didn’t demonstrate the language we use when we wonder. So while my students did wonder, they didn’t have the language scaffolds needed to record their wonderings in writing, in English. If I had a do-over I would include linguistically simple as well as linguistically complex examples, and highlight the language of wondering.

2. Lost in translation

Students with emerging English skills often bring rich language resources to their new learning. Translation can unlock some of these resources. However, we need to be intentional in finding translation that conveys meaning. For instance, Google translates “wonder” from English to “preguntarse” (ask yourself) in Spanish. “Yet if you type in “maravilla” in Spanish you get “wonder” in English. Even better would be “maravillarse” which is a verb that translates as “to marvel” or “to wonder”. You can see how the deep meaning changes.

When I clunked my way through that lesson I didn’t plan for unlocking the meaning of “wonder” through translation. Doing so would have quickly and fluidly pulled the curtain back on the nuances that “wonder” conveys. This would have allowed my students to focus on the task of idea generation instead of trying to figure out what I was asking of them. I could have quickly started with Google translate and then double-checked other resources. The search I did for this post took about five minutes. Those few minutes could have made a big difference to my students.

3. All language is meaning-filled

As I mentioned, many students who are learning English bring rich, existing language to their school-experience. Leveraging these competencies is critical. One way to do this is by letting students know their home-language is a resource, just as English is. When crafting our list of wonderings, I should have created an environment where students knew they could write in whatever language they felt most comfortable with.

Doing this is key for a couple of reasons. First, it would have allowed my students to focus on the lesson’s goal: idea generation. By lowering the cognitive load of learning English, we could have gotten to the core of what we needed to do as writers. Second, highlighting home language as a resource honors students as people and as writers. It conveys the idea that all voices are important, and need to be heard. Now, keep in mind that I would not have forced students to write in a home language. I just would have created the atmosphere where students knew they could. Doing so would have provided the safety and scaffolding that some may have needed to begin writing.

My Wondering List

In the interest of modeling, here is a wondering list I wrote for Teachers Write! And, by the way, it’s this wondering list that led me to write this post.

  1. How do I start and keep a writing practice going?
  2. Why do people want to write?
  3. How can I spend time writing and keep my commitments to my profession, my self, my family, and my friends all alive and well?
  4. Does loving to write make me an introvert?
  5. Is that a bad thing?
  6. What does it mean to be a teacher-writer?
  7. How do I share with my students my own worries about writing so that they feel comfortable sharing theirs?
  8. How do other languages say “wonder”?
  9. How do we make writing instruction work for all students?
  10. What paradigms need a complete shake up?
  11. What am I missing as a caucasian, female educator?
  12. What capacities do students bring to their writing?
  13. How do I help them unleash those capacities

A Slice of Certainty

Slice of Confidence

If you’ve found my blog you’ve likely noticed the tag line. I wrote it to resonate with you, the teacher reading this. But I also wrote it for myself. You see I wanted to remind us all that even when we don’t feel like we’re doing an amazing job, it’s likely we’re still doing great things. And we need to be certain of that fact.

When I first started teaching I lived in constant fear of being found out. I was terrified that someone was going to walk into my room and see that I really was a horrible teacher after-all. Who is this woman, they would say, and why in the world did we hire her?!

Too much uncertainty will deplete you.

It’s not that reality substantiated these fears. No, the opposite was true. My colleagues were complimentary. The principal wanted me to increase my time. My job was secure. I even received a couple of award nominations from students. Together these things seem like they would show a person she is successful. However, I just couldn’t be certain. And this uncertainty left me depleted and distracted.

Now, I’m sure some of this is just my personality (yes, I can be a bit self-critical). But I also believe this is a commonality in our profession. I say this because I’ve seen it so many times. Some in tears, unsure of their abilities as they blamed themselves for a lesson gone wrong. Others questioning if the principal really thought they were doing a good job. Usually these comments came from the most respected teachers. People who I, and others, aspired to be like.

Your quest to improve doesn’t implicate lacking.

Of course taking responsibility, and being on a quest to constantly improve, is a good thing. It’s part of being a great teacher. If we think we have arrived, it’s a sure sign that we haven’t. But it’s a fine line between questioning one’s abilities and reaching for more. The former tends to get in our way, while the latter is a propelling force.

It wasn’t that long ago when I finally realized that advancing my practice does’t have to be based in uncertainty and self-criticism. Instead, I can be both confident in my current capacity and still endeavor to be better. When this finally settled inside of me, my teaching changed. I became lighter. People actually told me I looked younger. Having fun while learning became more of a goal. Taking risks to try new things felt invigorating. And all of this rubbed off on my students.

Savor your wins and build from there.

Too often, in school, learning how to do something means there was a time we weren’t good at it. While there may be truth to this, it’s time to switch the paradigm. I no longer believe it’s productive to concentrate on what might be missing, on the things we aren’t sure about. Instead we need to focus on our/our student’s strengths. Let’s savor our wins and build from there.

As I end my first year of being in a new position, I realize that I truly did let go of my fear of being found out. Although I had many moments of being nervous about doing well, and I constantly sought to improve, I didn’t doubt myself in the same way. Instead I moved through the year with a slice of certainty. And that slice had a sweet taste indeed!

Want to know more about teaching with certainty?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are some ways you’ve been uncertain, or doubted yourself, as an educator? Does that get in your way? What have you done/realized to change your perspective?

Growth Mindset (or lack thereof) – Finding humor and human in a difficult situation

We have a special code at my house for “good job”. Step in the door with a high grade, a win, or any other action worthy of commendation, and you’ll receive the exclamation “Bad Addis!” (I’m sure you get the euphemism). But it didn’t start that way. When I first heard “Bad Addis” it really meant, “You’ve done a bad job Mrs. Addis”.

Beginner's Mind Pin

During my decade-plus as a special education teacher I had the fortune of working with teenagers, many of whom communicated in their own ways. Some used their words, some used their drawings, and some used their bodies. Throughout the year I would become attuned to their modes of expression. And along the way I would discover both who my students were, and who I was. I would also discover that mistakes aren’t the end, they are the beginning (@34:19).

The event that sparked our family saying involved an angry, frustrated student. I can’t even remember why, so it must have been something small in my mind. Obviously it was something big in his. As a student of few words, he shared his sentiments by turning his back to me. Then he walked to a corner where a study carrel joined the wall, and stayed there.

I was doing the best I could.

Imagining myself the consummate behaviorist I was not going to “pick up the rope”. Instead, I would ignore his actions. And that’s how I found myself in the middle of a power struggle. He with his back turned, and me acting as if this was a regular school day. The more I ignored, the more he tried to get my attention, the more I ignored. And so we went, with little resolution. In hindsight this does seem a bit absurd, but in the moment I was doing the best I could.

As things progressed neither of us was satisfied. I really wanted to get him back on track, right then. He really wanted me to react. I know this because with the passing moments his behavior heightened. It began with surreptitious glances in my direction, ramped up to verbal accusations of “Bad Addis”, and crescendoed with declarations of “F*ck Addis”. Honestly I don’t even remember how the situation ended. Rest assured though, we do still have a positive relationship.

I felt it was a statement of my ability as a teacher.

Needless to say I ended that day deflated. Not only had I failed to teach my student, but I felt like all my training and expertise had left me twisting in the wind. I was confronted with my lacking and felt it was a statement of my ability as a teacher. At the time, growth mindset hadn’t hit the scene. I had no idea that mistakes are part of learning. I didn’t know that all successful people make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. I didn’t have the words to say to myself, “I’m not good at this yet, but one day I will be better. Instead I settled with “Boy do I suck!”.

After school I dragged myself home, hoping for some no-holds-barred sympathy. I imagined group hugs, and pats on the back, and lots of “It’s OKs”. At the dinner table I asked my family, “Wanna hear what happened today?” “Sure” they replied, with that questioning inflection that means not really but I’m trying to be polite. Deep into the story, as soon as I machine-gunned the phrase “Bad Addis” they burst into laughter. Actually it was more like doubled-over, belly aching, guffaws. No sympathy, just unabashed merriment at my expense. It was then that I finally saw the humor of my day, and I realized the gift my student had given me.

In that moment of laughter I was proud of myself.

I discovered in that moment of laughter that I was proud of myself, and proud of my student. I knew then that we had both tried our best, albeit in clunky unproductive ways, to communicate our needs. Both of us human, and both of us wanting something positive from the other. Me wanting him to learn, and him wanting me to acknowledge his frustration. And I also realized that we were both “Bad Addis!” for giving it our all. Even if I wasn’t a hero that day, I had put in the effort. Tomorrow would be another chance to do better.

So the next time you don’t get it right put your hands on your hips, relish that power stance, and declare that you too are “Bad Addis!” Tomorrow will come and you will have another chance to pour your heart in, just as you did today. Only you will do so having learned a little in the process.

Want to know more about Growth Mindset or Behavior Management?

Growth Mindset

Behavior Management