The Right Foot: How to Create a Solid Foundation at the Beginning of the Year

The post that appears below is the original, unedited draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

In my twelve years of teaching, I have come to realize that how the end of the year goes has everything to do with how I start the year with my students. I have lived it, and I have seen it: a strong start to the year makes everything else easier, but a weak start to the year is, well, nearly impossible to amend. 

With this in mind, there are some foundational approaches that have served me–and my students–well. 

Let’s start with those pesky first impressions. Lots of research indicates that people need just seconds to form ideas about someone they are just meeting. How can we as teachers maximize those first seconds? First, presence

As much as I am annoyed at the weight of Haim Ginott’s comments that the teacher is “the deciding element” of the climate in the classroom, I have witnessed its veracity over and over. Here are some suggestions to be meaningfully present the first day of school: Welcome students at the door with a warm greeting. Make it clear where they need to sit. Dress professionally. Be intentional with your body placement and posture, eye movements as well as vocal approach, because at every moment students are reading you, consciously and unconsciously responding to (what I’ve always called) your vibe (but psychologists call “emotional contagion”). 

Next, space and place

Though teachers don’t need to be experts in Marie Kondo or feng shui, I have found it helpful to be mindful of the physical space my students are entering on the first day as it is ultimately an extension of how I feel about them. This includes having a tidy and aromatic room prepared with resources (tissues go a long way), a thoughtful desk arrangement with smart traffic flow, objectives/agendas posted in spaces clearly marked for specific classes, personal touches that reveal I am also a human while also generating conversation, background music, and a balance of posted content and free wall space for future student contributions. In addition to the space, a good way to make a positive first impression is making sure everything has a place. Disheveled paperwork, inaccessible resources or haphazard chaos not only communicate to students a lack of organization, it also comes back to haunt me (and them) later in the year.

Though presence, space and place are important, in some ways they are also just the window dressing. The real work of the start of the school year is about intention. As a teacher, what is true north that will guide everything you do all year long? For me, this is two-fold: relationships and clarity. 

Everything that happens during the first week or two of school is designed to build relationships. This starts with a proper introduction. One of my first day activities is always a get-to-know-you survey. Some of the best questions are: Who is a teacher who had a positive impact on you and what did they do specifically? What are your pet peeves as a learner? Are there any conflicts (with people or arrangement) in this room I need to be aware of?

While students are completing this survey, I make a point to walk around the room, introduce myself with a firm handshake and eye contact, request the names they want to be called and then make sure I can correctly pronounce it. 

Next comes those activities everyone loves to hate: icebreakers. 

As a language arts teacher who values storytelling and relationships, I tend toward writing and sharing activities as ice breakers. Here are some ideas:

  • Find and share about a _____(children’s book, quote, song, poem, cartoon, found object) that tells us something important about who you are.
  • Students imitate a mentor text and share theirs. Some good ideas are “I Am From” by George Ella Lyon and “My Name” and “Those Who Don’t” from The House on Mango Street. 
  • Write and share a piece like “If You Really Knew Me” (from Challenge Day) or “This I Believe” from NPR. 
  • Write and share a 6 word memoir

One caveat here: it is important for the teacher to engage in this process just as the students do.

In addition to a storytelling icebreaker of some sort, I also start the year with circles. This is a great way to share the work students have written, build connections, establish norms, as well as identify and address individual or community needs. 

Another important element of relationship building is modeling for students authentic reflection. I do this in a couple of ways. One, I read the surveys they completed and compile lists of their needs/pet peeves. Then I publicly share a bit about how I will leverage my strengths and improve my weaknesses to honor student preferences. I also share survey data from last year’s students to let them know what I do well and what I’ll be working on this year. 

Of course, all of this relationship building takes vulnerability, which leads to my second priority: clarity. 

Before any student ever shares, establish non-negotiable actionables that elicit respectful attention. And then constantly revisit them. This is pivotal not only for a strong community, but also for the risk that rigorous learning will later require. 

I establish other norms through student collaboration as well. A great prompt thread that I often use in circles is: What is your goal for this class this year? In order to reach that goal, what do you need from yourself? From me? From your peers? Without them even knowing it, they are generating classroom dos and don’ts that I can then post to reinforce. 

Day two or three of the first week, I will share the syllabus. Sharing the syllabus after we’ve built some connections demonstrates two important principles: that relationships are most important and second, that clarity matters in this class. Through previewing the syllabus, they are exposed to the regulations required by school, the class’s content and objectives, and an overview of what they can expect from my discipline and pedagogical style.

It may seem odd that there is no direct content instruction the first few days. But ultimately, the more solid of a foundation I can build at the beginning of the year, the more deeper learning with fewer management issues can thrive throughout the year. And that is a trade I am willing to make.

using circle practice in the classroom

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

Using Circles in the Classroom

When I think about my style as a teacher, two words come to mind: community and communication. First, I want my classroom to be a place students want to be, a place they feel safe and loved and valued; I want them to believe their stories matter. Second, I want my classroom to be filled with the presence and merit of student voice; I want them to tell their stories. These two qualities are inextricably linked. When students belong, they open up; when students open up, they belong. 

I have found an effective and meaningful path to both community and communication in my classroom is circle practice–or council as called by my training program–inspired by Restorative Justice (RJ). Though originating in criminal contexts, RJ has become quite popular in schools as of late. Many educators approach Restorative Approaches as an upgrade to traditional discipline approaches (moving away from mere consequences toward real responsibility based on relationship), but at its core, RJ is not meant to be a reactive program but rather a proactive program. This can be achieved most impressively through circle practice. Based on the ancient practices of indigenous peoples, circles are designed as spaces where everyone is equal, valid, present, and involved. 

I have used circle practice to serve academic, social-emotional, reflective, and restorative purposes in my classroom with students, as well as with my colleagues. Here’s how. 

Set Up

First, set up the physical space. After years of practice, I have a routine. On my centerpiece–a beautiful knitted round blanket I received from a colleague–are laid various “talking pieces”: rocks, crystals, stuffed animals, toys, etc that act as the physical signifier to indicate whose voice we are listening to at any time. Around that are enough chairs for all participants; these chairs must be in close proximity to foster the intimacy. Of course, this usually occurs in a classroom, so all this placement occurs after the requisite moving of desks. If you are just beginning though, a circle and one talking piece will suffice. 

Next, set up the purpose and expectations. If it is the first circle with a group, I have this overview printed as a handy guide. I explain the overarching purpose of circle: to form a community with open lines of communication–so important to taking intellectual risks. I set up the norms: 1, speak from the heart (only with the talking piece, authentic contributions); 2, listen from the heart (without judgment, with compassion, circle is the one place in society where we have the complete focus of people without distractions); 3, speak spontaneously (spend time listening, not thinking about what you’re going to say); 4 speak leanly (especially important with big groups); and 5, what is shared in the circle stays in the circle (I stress this fiercely). Because I always do this thoroughly early in the year, it sets up circle culture for the rest of the year. After this general set up, refine the intention for the current circle. Is it to build relationships? Is it to explore an academic topic? Is it to rectify a wrong? Is it to explore an issue of concern? Is it for reflection?

Structure

With the physical space and expectations established, it is time to set up the structure of circle. Three basic components comprise a circle routine: opening, prompts, and closing. 

The Opening

The opening consists of the norming (as already discussed); directions (after the prompt is posed, pick a talking piece that speaks to you, share, then pass to the left as the sun moves across the sky); the name round (if participants do not know each other); and an ice breaker question (a light, easy question that invites everyone’s voice into space without threat, such as what is your favorite music, ice cream flavor, season, etc). I also lead a moment of mindfulness to begin. 

The Prompts

After the opening comes the prompts: the best part about circle! It is so flexible and the prompt rounds can serve a number of purposes. This is where the magic happens.

Circles are effective at the beginning of the year as a means to start identifying and planning for students’ individual needs. The following questions serve this purpose: What kind of learner are you? Who is a teacher who has influenced you greatly and why? What do you need from your peers to be successful? What are your learning pet peeves? How do you feel about reading, writing and/or speaking? 

Circles are also great to close the year. The intention of these prompts are celebration and reflection with questions like: How have you grown this year? What do you wish you would have done differently? How has this course prepared you for next year? What is a favorite memory from this year? 

Circles build relationships. I print out a bunch of get to know you questions, lay them around the centerpiece, and students pick which questions to use for the prompt rounds. Or students craft questions to ask each other. 

Circles can be used for a restorative approach as well. One time when I was absent for PD, the sub reported disrespect and damage to the room. The questions that time were RJ based: What happened? Why did it happen? Who was affected and how? How do we repair the wrongs? Following the circle, the students cleaned the room and wrote apologies–per their conclusion.

Circles serve academic purposes as well. For example, before beginning Ceremony, I printed many articles with information about issues affecting Native Americans. I laid them all out around the circle centerpiece with baskets of pens/pencils/post-its. I then give directions (pick an article that attracts you, read and annotate, be prepared to share). Then I asked questions such as: What predictions do you have about the novel based on these articles? What is something that stood out to you and why? What comparisons can you make between these texts and others we have read? 

Circles are spaces to care for students in their moments of stress or trauma. One day in my IB class, things felt deeply off. Instead of a lesson, we meet in circle to discuss: How are you? What’s overwhelming you? How do you self-care? Who lifts you up when you are down? How can we support one another? After a heartbreaking flare up of gang violence in one school’s neighborhood, we wept together in circle, answering questions like: What makes you feel afraid? What makes you feel safe? What do you need? How can we move the community forward? 

Circles can also be meaningful for staff as well. Circles are a great way to establish collaborative norms: What do you need from your colleagues? What are you collaboration pet peeves? How do you best handle difficult conversations? How do we want our group to be defined? Circles are great openers for staff at the beginning of the year: What are you most looking forward to this year? What are you apprehensive about? If your colleagues needed to know one thing about you, what is it? Circles are great protocols for staff to reflect on their practice: What’s going well? What are you working on? What’s been a successful/ineffective lesson you’ve taught and what made it so? Circles are a safe place for staff to respond to their own trauma/stress. During the same period of gang violence mentioned above, we had a circle for staff to cope and process as well: What is worrying you? What is your wish for our community? How can we move forward? What do you need from your peers? What do you want for our students? I hosted a circle for interested colleagues after the most recent presidential election: How does this affect you? How does it affect our students? How can we move forward? What do you need? What resources can we provide our students. 

Circles can serve any purpose. All you need are meaningful prompts. 

The Closing

Because circles can be so powerful, they necesitate closure. There are a couple ways to do this. You can keep it light with a group high five or a silly coordination game. You can do a witness round in which participants share one word on their mind. You can end with a sentence starter prompt such as “I was… but now I am…” The closing offers an opportunity for participants to transition in a healthy way. It is also critical to remind participants of the norm that what was shared in the circle stays in the circle. 

Some of my most memorable moments in the classroom have been inside of a circle, and they are always treasured moments of community and communication. 

I think my students would say the same. 

weight and Light

My heart has been heavy recently.

As Timehop likes to remind me, this week’s history carries its own weight. Three years ago: our cat died. Five years ago: we were cleaning out my Mom’s house to put it on the market after she died. Six years ago: one year before she died, she had part of her lung removed to combat cancer. I carry all this with me, in my bones, in my blood, viscerally, almost as if the years are on parallel planes. And…in the future, this week will now carry the weight of a heavy diagnosis for someone I care about.

I carry the weight of my students. Senior year is not easy. Senior year as an IB student is definitely not easy. Senior year suffocating under pressure of your parents’ expectations is heartbreakingly not easy. I stopped curriculum last week to have a circle with my students as a time to process, to cry, to hug, to sit. still. I asked them the question: how is your heart? Oh the weight. My students are grieving the future they do not have access to while simultaneously mourning the impending loss of their childhood home and comfort. All this with deadlines and fatigue and sports and college applications and rising rates of depression and hard looks in the mirror and… the list goes on. Sometimes the most important thing we can do as teachers is to carry some of our students’ baggage.

I carry the weight of my colleagues. Tomorrow, Brazil will probably experience an election similar to the US’s most recent: where the people elect a man who prioritizes national identity and fiscal gain at the cost of the marginalized. I now carry the weight of my students on scholarship. The weight of my homosexual friends. The weight of the “other” who is, in essence, me. And you. And us. I am tempted to be angry, to be bitter–exactly my response after Trump’s election. But then I think about the energy I put into the world

and so I pick up Light and carry its weight.

 

 

 

 

an open reflection on my practice: semester one of teaching abroad

“As I draw the curtains on the sleepy eyes of 2017, my mind turns to the power of reflection. It is my first semester teaching internationally. How has it gone? What are my strengths? What are my next steps?

At the end of the semester, I presented a survey eliciting student feedback. It is a survey provided by my school leadership that I modified for what matters to me most as a teacher. Here are the results (prompts are at the top). Some thoughts:

  • I need to improve in clarity. 1, “In this class the expectations for assignments, quizzes, tests, homework, summatives are clear.” 2, “In this class I am clear about the goals, standards, objectives.” In both of these categories, I scored an average less than 4. As I have wrestled with before, my current school is adopting Ken O’Conner‘s approach to grades: that is, no grades. Or accurate grades. Or standards-based grading. Or… well, you can see why my students are unsettled with this aspect of my instruction: so am I! As with all initiatives, it is not the theory with which I am at odds, but rather the annoyingly messy implementation. I think this also ties into the below 4 score in “My teacher is fair” category. Here are my plans to address this: 1, more class models and collaborative scoring of work 2, student self-assessment and reflection 3, soliciting continued feedback from students about this aspect of my teaching 4, deliberate introductions and thorough explanation of assessments and 5, being targeted with and explicit about the alignment among homework, formatives and summatives. Those are the easy ones (insert giggling emjoi here). More nuanced but nonetheless necessary: the intentional offering of opportunities for ambiguity (never accidentally). I know that students need to tolerate and negotiate ambiguity to be successful in the real world. But sometimes this is at odds with grading policies, especially in a competitive school like mine. I want to work on transparency regarding this. And yes, well, that is ambiguous. Hopefully, I’ll work through it like my students will!
  • I am proud of the level of rigor I have maintained this semester. 1, “My teacher challenges me to think critically and analyze information.” 2, “In this class I feel challenged.” This has always been the hill I will die on. [bctt tweet=”I will not insult my students by lowering expectations for them. ” username=”eternitymod”] They deserve better. And yes, it is shreddingly painful while I’m establishing that 1, yes they can 2, no I will not back down 3, this comes from a place of love and 4, that’s right, now here we go. One of my greatest points of pride as an educator is the number of alumni who have told me my class prepared them for the intensity of college. I may not be liked, but I make a difference. 

But therein lies the rub: I want to be liked. And this has been the dominant reflection in my mind this break. Today marks two weeks since I have last seen my kiddos; and I won’t see them until January 23rd. I miss them. Do they miss me? Am I a part of their lives more as than just a taskmaster?

To be fair, I don’t think it’s about being liked. That is superficial. But it is about a connection, which is exactly why I asked this question on the survey: “I feel connected to Mrs. Davenport.” This also scored below a 4 average. And out of all the other numbers, I am NOT. okay. with. this. average. And really, connection shouldn’t be about average: it should be percentage. 100% of my students feel connected to me. I am connected to each. and. every. human. in. my. charge. 

And so, more than anything else, this is what I want to work on next semester. And it has a face. This student doesn’t do well. And this student sits in class, quiet, anonymous, hidden. I do not know this student. I am annoyed by parental blame on me rather than student ownership. And I have probably taken it out on this student. And I know this student probably rated me low on so many aspects of the survey.

I have failed this student. I have let it become personal instead of professional. I have neglected our connection. But that was 2017. Look out, this student, I am coming for you.


To all my teacher readers: I’d love to hear your reflections. What went well for you this past semester? What are you working on? What’s your “this student” story? What questions help you reflect meaningfully on your practice? 

 

teacher reflections: strong relationships AND high expectations

I have transitioned, now, into four different schools.

The first school, Adams City High School, I like to think I came in as a wrecking ball. Unfamiliar, new, powerful in a naive way. The second and third school, Bruce Randolph and North, respectively, where I first tiptoed around who I knew I was and who I thought my new kiddos needed. And now, I find myself in my fourth school, Graded. And once again, I am walking the wire of tension between strong relationships and high expectations.

They don’t like it.

Daily, I vacillate between “why don’t they like me?” and “why don’t they understand my high expectations?”

I’ve had that question during interviews:

Do you think students need to like a teacher in order to learn?

And my response to such a trick question, assured in a decade of experience, is a resounding “yes!” Not because I want to be popular. But rather, my desire to be liked comes from an ingrained and tried-and-trued belief that if students like the teacher, they learn better from the teacher.

And so, this week, in some of my classes where there was a clear disconnection floating among the auras in the room, I paused curriculum for some circle time.

What’s going well this year? What’s not?

Tell a story about someone who means a lot to you. Who inspires you? Why?

What is the truest thing about yourself? 

Silver strings wove among our hearts, glistening with laughter, weighted with truth, alight with authenticity, lifted with hope.

It was beautiful and magical. Just like circles can be.

Also this week was a survey. Tell me what I’m doing well. Tell me what I can improve on. I was encouraged that so many talked about how they appreciated my daily mindful moments (new this year, after some training through Mindful Schools). I was not surprised that so many said I needed to improve in clarity: of assessments, of alignment, of feedback, of grading.

After all, I myself am new to a new school, a new grading system, a new paradigm. I AM confused. Oh Hattie, if I am going to achieve your effect size of .75, I need to work on this.

And so I reflect. I adjust. I change the lesson plans. Student feedback IS the driving force of any strong classroom.

Except for in one area.

I will take your feedback and implement it to improve. After all, I ask the same of you. However, one thing I can guarantee: I will NOT lower my expectations. I have never and I never will. You deserve my highest expectations. You are worthy and capable. I will not insult you by lowering my expectations.

And so… daily in my classroom, even after a decade of experience, somethings always are changing. Yet somethings never do.

And so goes the dance of expertise with reflection.

 

 

 

 

dear you: a letter to my first set of international students

I’ve come here for you. All five thousand seven hundred and sixty nine miles for you. Yes, the adventure and travel and culture and lifestyle called, but more than anything, it was you that captivated me.

The last two weeks have been in preparation for you. And I am ready. Though there is so much value in adult collaboration and collegiality, it is for you, the students, I show up everyday. You are my heart and soul. You are my light.

Like any first time mother, I am nervous also; you are my first international children. I wonder if my experience has adequately prepared me for you? I wonder how much I can teach you, challenge you? I wonder if I will be able to create with you the depth of loving connections I had with students in the past? I wonder if I will be able to live up to the level of teachers you’ve had before?

I don’t know.

What do I know?

I know that I will laugh with you–and you at me! I know that I will worry as much about your heart as I do your head. I know that our class will be a safe place. I know that I will ask you questions that will change your lens–hopefully your life. I know I will encourage you to write your life and live your story. I know I will foster your leadership in our class. I know that I will see you, truly.

I know that I will love you. I already do. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: though I have not yet met you, I love you.

And on this first day of nervous and excited jitters, that is what I hold tightly with my teacher hands.

 

storytelling using mentor texts

Inevitably, every break brings time for reflection and renewal for teaching. What’s going well? What’s hurting the team? Over winter break, I found myself desperate for a reset in my classroom. Students didn’t even know each other’s names, much less stories; I was the bad guy without enough of the connection that grounds those high expectations; I was so busy trying to collaborate in an overwhelming amount of configurations that I lost my authentic teacher compass; I was buried in systematic behavior expectations that did not align with who I am…and that didn’t work. I felt like a failure…worst, I was uninspired and uninspiring.

Last semester, my colleague and friend started talking about the writing approach which consists of copying mentor texts. She’s all up in this book and talking about it all over the place. (You know, authentic and real PD…not the forced kind; rather the kind that evolves from dialogue and mutual eagerness to grow in our craft.) We implemented mentor texts with our juniors as a way to create real-life writing experiences: reviews.

Slowly these two bodies of reflection met and bowed to each other on the dance floor of my mind: how can I provide students the opportunity to share their stories and improve their writing with mentor texts? How can I create an opportunity for reset while encouraging students to write beyond the traditional (and boring) academic scope (read 5 paragraph essay).

And those two ideas danced. Beautifully and wonderfully, beyond my expectations. Here is how I approached it (some steps are modified for how I wish I would have done it):

  1. I decided on two mentor texts: Maus and Night. This would give students the ultimate choice: story-telling via prose or story-telling via art.
  2. Then I combed both texts looking for engaging prompts and mentor text sections that would elicit stories that matter from my students, the kinds of stories that bond at the heart level. Here are those prompts for Maus and Night.
  3. To begin all this, and to deepen my own connections with students, I also modeled the process, as did my student teacher. I chose for my brain dump a piece about my Mom I had published on this blog a while back. Then I altered it to mimic the mentor text. I also walked through breaking down the mentor text into moves I could mimic.
  4. Next students picked their genre and prompt followed by a rough draft. This draft is not based on the structure or style of the mentor text, but merely is a brain dump to get their stories onto the paper.
  5. Then began the analysis of the mentor texts’ approaches. This was a chance for students to be independently taught writing craft by the mentor text they selected. They were guided through this process using extensive graphic organizers. Here those are for Maus and NightOf course I shouldn’t have been surprised at how this organically produced the close and deep independent reading I’ve been trying to manufacture all year long. But that is exactly what happened. Three cheers for favorable instructional accidents!
  6. After the analysis portion, students transitioned to the remaking of their drafts into the style of their chosen genre. For some, this meant adding dialogue. For others, they rearranged paragraphs. For the artsy, they drew and divided into panels with shading and captions. No matter what, each student was nose deep in a text, looking for how to mimic it. It took a bit for them to get the hang of it, but they did!
  7. At this point, we did some peer workshopping. Secretly, the real point here was the sharing of their stories in partners to prepare them for a larger production. After all, in my head, this IS the reason for this entire writing project: community connections. All the academic benefits are bonuses. (Oops, did I say that out loud?)
  8. Then, the wondrous glory of storytelling: the sharing. I asked for feedback from students regarding which peers they felt most comfortable and uncomfortable sharing with, and then I used that data to place students into a variety of small groups. In those groups, I gave very specific directions to 1, read his/her story out loud and 2, each student was to write a note of encouragement/thank-you letter to the author after he/she shared. I provided sentence frames and colored cards. To me, these are the kinds of days I live for as a teacher. Students huddled together in small groups, sharing secrets of the heart, spinning webs of connection that are strong and trustworthy, a web upon which we build more learning and more connection. A web which catches the light.
  9. Finally, students self-graded using a narrative rubric based on CCSS. In the future, I will do a better job explicitly teaching these elements, because though they were inherent in the works the students produced, the students themselves did not have the language to self-evaluate with specifics.

The pieces the students turned in were breathtaking both in craft and content. Were there grammar errors? Of course…but honestly, who cared when I was seeing some of the best writing I’ve seen from students in my decade of teaching. The pieces were original and unique and authentic and individual and unfettered with the formulaic chains we so often think at-risk students need. The pieces were heart-wrenching with students exposing the dangerous truths of their lives: from gang violence to domestic abuse to homelessness to murder to drugs to suicide to anxiety to sexual assault to the grief of too many orphaned children. I was not reading papers; I was reading souls.

But THE most beautiful moment in this project came the day we shared our stories in small groups. Throughout the day, I roamed to different groups to pop in on students’ stories and leave them a note from my heart to theirs. In one group of two boys and two girls, one of my most difficult and often disengaged boys began sharing his story. As he worked his way through it, it was evident his exterior was cracking. His pace slowed; his face tightened; his eyes moistened; his words chocked. He collapsed into himself, a heaving pile of grief, shattered by bullets past. Literally. His peer, the other boy in the group, silently got up from his seat, walked around the table, knelt beside him, rubbed his back, and just stayed…a steady, silent, comforting rock. It was a moment so beautiful, so raw, I nearly lost my breath.

Who am I kidding? I did.

And things have been better with that student. Not perfect. Not a miracle. But a shaky bridge has been solidified.

And that is just the kind of story I want to write with penstrokes of my career.

 

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Parenting, teaching, writing, and learning to find beauty in the present

talk from chalk

What I've learned while teaching

Thoughtful teaching

Thoughts on teaching in the modern world.

Hope, Honor, and Happiness

A blog for the book “Kingdom of the Sun” and discussions on finding the Hope, Honor, and Happiness in education, life, and the seemingly impossible.

Secret Teacher

Life inside the primary classroom

A Confederacy of Spinsters

Sex, Dating, and Surviving Your Twenties

Miss Four Eyes

Seeing twice as much absolutely counts as a super power.