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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Defining Educationese & Creating a Common Language

Education has so many buzzwords at any given time. We take these words, throw them into goals that we create, revamp our mission & vision statements to include them, and expect teachers and students to meet the goals. What we often don't do is define what the words mean to the district. How the district defines any particular word that is used as a driver for learning. The term innovation is a perfect example...personalized learning is another. If we don't take time to define the educationese that we use in our goals, it's difficult to expect people to know how to meet them.

Recently, I was presenting a workshop on personalized learning. The night before, I had an idea on how I might be able to get this very idea across. I revamped my presentation, and the next day I broke the participants into groups, gave them a word that I wanted them to define and asked teachers to close their devices briefly (gasp! - I know, it was only for a bit, though) so they couldn't look up the definition. The word was Nomophobia. Teachers were asked to define the word, create a SMART goal to meet the needs for this word, and action steps on how to meet the SMART goal. The result was amazing. Teachers created very real goals and definitions. They had an idea of what the word could be by noticing that the root word "phobia" was there, similar to how we might have an idea of what a buzzword might mean. They created action steps that would be best practice for meeting any goal. They had professional development offered, students were creating content, teachers were running PLCs based on the concept. They had many activities that we see in new districtwide and schoolwide implementations every day. When all the groups finished, we looked at how they had defined the unknown word. Even though they had fantastically realistic goals and activities, all of their definitions, although similar, were incorrect. All of them had an element of truth. The groups recognized that phobia was a fear, but the root word threw them off, therefore while the plans were solid, nobody knew what the goals and activities were really accomplishing.

(Nomophobia, by the way, is the fear of being without a mobile phone. I am a self diagnosed Nomophobiac.)

Sometimes, defining a word seems like an elementary task. Sometimes, it seems like it would be obvious that all stakeholders know what a term means. Sometimes, I think deep down, we are afraid of finding out that we were the ones who didn't know what it meant. No matter the reason why, when we create goals and implement new ideas without going through this important step, we are risking complete failure because we have no common foundation to build upon.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Would you do what you're asking of your students?

I think that we oftentimes have expectations of students that we, as adults, would not do ourselves. Many times, we file this under the fact that students are children and we are adults, so as adults we should get special privileges that students shouldn't have. However, not all of what we do should fall under this umbrella, and we need to be more cognizant of what we are actually asking of our students.

How We Listen
Since I have moved into instructional support (even as a director I'm still instructional support), I have been able to work with adults in a different capacity. As I provide professional development or hold a meeting, I can see things I couldn't when I was sitting as a participant. Oftentimes, I see participants multitasking, chatting on the side, or standing up because they "can't sit that long" (and I do all of these same things...sitting quietly through a long meeting is the closest thing I know to torture). Yet, students are often asked to sit for extended periods of time while doing nothing but listen. In education, we are just now seeing classrooms moving to flexible learning spaces, but not all classrooms have embraced this kind of learning support yet. If an administrator would ask adults in a meeting to close their technology, stop grading papers, and sit down quietly, many of us would be outraged.

Conflict Resolution
Another example is what we ask of students when they have a disagreement. Students come in from recess angry after arguing with each other, and we ask them to go get some version of a conflict resolution bridge, and tell them to go in the hall and work through it. Teaching kids conflict resolution is not the issue. Obviously this needs to be done. However, as adults we often take time to process a disagreement after having it. If we don't, we are often told we should have because people need time and space to think about what happened and what the best solution would be. Think of how it would feel if you were involved in a disagreement with a co-worker and the principal took you two immediately into the office and told you to work it out? It would be uncomfortable and possibly confrontational. Yet, we tell students to handle the situation immediately, which leaves them frustrated, angry and less likely to be able to process the situation they way they could have otherwise.

Uniform Expectations
As we go through our year as educators, we need to have expectations uniform from our leadership or we struggle trying to figure out what is expected from us, which makes sense. It's difficult to work in conditions where you're unsure of what's expected. Sometimes, we have a few leaders who have expectations that differ, and are either left frustrated trying to figure out what we need to do or stressed knowing that no matter what we do, it won't satisfy everyone's expectations (or both). Yet students go through their day interacting with several different teachers all with different expectations. For example, particularly at the secondary level, a student might have one teacher might consider "on time" as being in the seat with books out, another teacher may consider just being in the room as on time, and yet another considers on time as being as long as you can be seen outside the door and walk in prior to the sound of the bell ending. Those teachers might be the first three classes of a student's day, and they might still have four more. The expectation of what is considered tardy is only one small compliance in the grand scheme of rules and procedures that teachers might have implemented. We expect students to conform and adjust to us, but what is expected of students is sometimes not what we would accept as being reasonable as adults if the same were done to us.

Empathy needs to surround us as teachers, and I think many teachers are amazing at thinking about their students' learning challenges and life outside school, but when it comes to what is expected of students across their whole day, we may need some reflection time. If it is something that we wouldn't do ourselves as adults, maybe there is a better way in order to make it work for students.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Five Things to Think About When Talking To Students

Teachers are busy. No doubt. There are a million things going on around them at any given time. While trying to live in the moment, they are reflecting on what just happened and thinking about what needs to come next. Being a teacher brings the role of "multitasker" to a whole new level. However, while our jobs may include standards and best practices and getting that next math lesson ready, our entire reason for professional being is for our students, and being aware of our interaction with them is one of our most important duties. Here are five things I think we need to remember when talking to students:

Be Present

Oftentimes, we have an undercurrent of a to-do list running through our head at all times which keeps us from actually living in the moment that we're in. With such busy minds, it can be difficult to remove the thinking that distracts us from what is happening right in front of us.  Sometimes, I am thinking about an answer prior to the person even finishing, which diverts me from catching additional information they might be giving me in the conversation. Also, kids have super skills in detecting if someone is paying attention. It's imperative that we turn our attention to whoever needs us, quiet our minds in order to be in the moment with that person and give them our full attention.

Be Empathetic

Image result for difficult kids need us mostEmpathy can be a hard emotion to conjure when you're constantly on the move or trying to determine if a recess disagreement was bullying or tattling. But, so many of our kids are coming to us from situations that are not anything we've been unfortunate enough to experience. Recently, I was speaking with a consultant who worked in an area that the gang activity was really high. When working with a principal in a school from the area, they determined that the high rate of teen pregnancy was because the gang members were impregnating girls in order to raise the next generation of gang members. Think about the level of mental and physical strain that those kids were going through, yet they were still coming to school. Some of the kids have situations at home that we, as adults, we would be crawling under the covers and refusing to come out, yet they come to school and are expected to learn and act in a socially responsible manner. Sometimes, the most difficult kids are the ones that need our love and understanding the most.

Remember They're Kids

When my son was in first grade, he really liked his teacher. One night, he came home and told me that she liked a certain animal, and he was going to draw her a picture. He worked on it for hours, which is impressive for a child who was that young and didn't like to draw. When he was done, he was proud of his creation and asked me for an envelope that he could decorate to give it to her as a present. I gave him one, he spent more time decorating the envelope, and put it in his backpack for the next day.

After school, I asked him if he gave his teacher the present. He said yes, but didn't look as excited as I was expecting, so I followed up with, "How did she like it?" He told me that he tried to give it to her, but she was busy and told him to put it on her desk, and then never said anything to him about it so he didn't know if she opened it or not. He was crushed. He never drew another teacher a picture again.

It doesn't really matter if you're talking about a 5 year old or 17 year old, they are just kids. They are trying to figure out who they are, which let's face it, is something that even as adults we can't seem to get a handle on. Everything that happens to them will shape what they think and what they do in the future. That one interaction, where the teacher wasn't present, wasn't remembering that she was dealing with a child, affected my son. She probably doesn't even know she did it, but her attitude toward him had lasting effects. They're kids. They're not adults. They need patience and attention and to feel like you know they're there.

Model Good Communication Skills

I don't think that adults, including myself, really grasp how kids grab onto our words and actions. Even when it doesn't look like they're watching, they are still paying attention to everything we do. An old song that reminds me of this is by Harry Chaplin called Cats in the Cradle. Basically, the song is about a dad who doesn't have time for his son, and in the end the son doesn't have time for him. While this may be a little dramatic, I guarantee that when students watch us communicate and interact with others, they are taking in how that sounds and what that looks like and recreating it in their own interactions.

Take a moment and think about the communications you had during the day today. Were you present? Were you being an active listener? Did you smile? Nod? Look angry? Bored? I once talked to an assistant superintendent who I swear was thinking about what he was going to have for lunch throughout our entire conversation. Would you want your students communicating in the same fashion you do? Are you modeling the kind of communication you want your students to use?

They Want a Relationship With Us
When little ones seek attention, it's because they want adults to realize they're there. They want to have a relationship with us where we think that they're awesome. And they are, all in their own ways. Even as the students get older, they want that connection with their teachers. Even if they would never admit it in public, they enjoy having a friendly conversation with a teacher who has taken an interest in their interests, and who can connect with them on another level besides academic. When students talk to us, it is the perfect time to cultivate those relationships and make the connections. Your favorite teacher in school wasn't your favorite because they were super organized or taught the standard for equivalent fractions...it was the teacher who made the biggest impact by being present, listening, and making a connection. For some kids, these relationships might be the only ones they have, and that connection might mean the world to them.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Made in China: New Connections

I've joked before in posts about living my entire life outside my comfort zone, but it's true. It's where I've found the most rewarding, unexpected experiences to happen that, in some cases, have changed a part of my person that would not have otherwise been affected. A few years ago, I decided to begin to say yes even when I really wanted to say no. Sometimes, that means considerable angst and anxiety, and my poor friends and family take the brunt of it as I try to work through what seems to be a complete inability to take things as they come.

When I was asked to go to China for an international forum and to visit schools in order to see if there could be the possibility of student exchanges, I was more than apprehensive. China was never a country I considered visiting, and I was concerned about some of the stories I had heard about others' experiences. However, in the true spirit of trying to say yes instead of no, I agreed to go and, in turn, began my months worth of worrying and concern about what everything would be like, and if I would do something wrong no matter how hard I tried to control my Americanism and end up tragically offending someone. My good friend, Dave Gundlach, was convinced I would cause an international incident. Possibly end up in prison. I didn't really think he was that far off.

The plan was to travel with our high school principal, Randy Hatlen, and his wife Mary. But while they had each other, I would be going alone. Alone. Another thing I don't do well at. I was concerned about this constantly. I have traveled alone many times before, so that wasn't the issue. The issue was the part of being alone in a foreign country in which I would stick out like a sore thumb. We didn't have a clear itinerary. I didn't know what to pack. I didn't know what the hotel would be like. I didn't know if my curling iron would work (gasp!). All in all, this trip would be the opposite of everything that I need in my life to feel comfortable. Lists. Plans. Checkboxes. And we were missing all of them. Then, to top it off, the first change came instantly when we arrived in China. First thing, I was separated from Randy and Mary to go to a different hotel because our itineraries changed, and I was to go alone. Alone. By myself. In China. I cried for an hour when I got to the hotel. I'm not proud of that, but I was literally past my anxiety point and had no idea what to expect next. I was trying to tell myself that I had an opportunity that I might never have again. It didn't matter. I was distraught. It was pathetic.

The next day I was exhausted. I had five hours of sleep in 48 hours and I was almost sick I was so tired. However, my first school tour changed the entire game. Changed my entire view, really. Being able to interact with kids and see them learn, even when the teaching was so different and the style was like nothing I had seen, reminded me exactly why I do what I do when I work late hours and go away from my family to conferences and workshops. The students were thrilled to see us. Literally thrilled. They would squeal if we said hello. Blush if we asked for a picture with them or gave them a compliment. One boy, red-faced, head hung and embarrassed, came up to me to give me a paper flower he had made me. He was about 12 years old. It was the highlight and turning point of my trip. Kids are kids no matter where you go. They want to learn and grow and deserve that chance. Leave it to the kids to set me straight.

From that moment on, I vowed to try to take things as they came, and that was a good choice for me because had I been looking for the most random experience ever, I would have certainly gotten what I wished for in China. Ultimately, living outside my comfort zone allowed me to have an amazing, life-changing experience. Not only did I cultivate a love for the country and its inhabitants, but I met phenomenal people from all over the world. People that create positive change for education and are truly making a difference in their educational system. I was humbled to be able to be a part of their experience. For example, my new friend Sylvia Paddock, who works with schools to improve teacher effectiveness through professional development and shared professional practice, and who shares my weird sense of humor. Or the amazing Joel Backwell from Australia, who passionately believes that creating relationships with Asian countries will allow students to have opportunities in the future that they wouldn't have otherwise, and who has quickly become a good friend of mine because he makes me smile just by chatting with him. My new friends Dan Meyers and Scott McLarty who are headmasters of a Catholic private school in San Francisco and are not only ridiculously intelligent, but also the ones who can make me laugh until I cry repeatedly with their quick wit. And finally, Petri Vuorinen from Finland and Rients VanGoudoever, who I was able to have engaging, informative conversations with about the state of education in our respective countries. Also, they might be two of the sweetest people I know. These connections have already enriched my life both personally and professionally in very unexpected ways, and I haven't even landed back on US soil yet. At one point, we were engaged with people from around the world that represented seven different countries, and an outsider might have thought that we had been friends all our lives. I don't know about anyone else, but I could use more togetherness right now...less us against them. Hopefully, we were modeling the kind of connections we would like our kids to make; the kind of future collaborations and relationships that they need to have.

I'm more sure than ever that the choice to say yes when my whole being is shouting no is one of my better life choices. It's not easy. It's difficult to consistently choose to go against your gut, especially when everyone tells you to follow it. However, had I said no to this China trip, I would have been passing up an opportunity and friendships that I now wouldn't give up for anything.