book reflection: “Teach Like Yourself” preface & ch 1

As you know from my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity these days.

With a bit of serendipity in the ether, a group I’ve been a part of for a while resurged on my Facebook feed with an invitation to a book club (thank you Kathie for the inspiration) about Teach Like Yourself by Gravity Goldberg. Yes, please!

So, for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be responding and reflecting to this book. Here is what’s on my mind after the preface and chapter 1.

Relationships.

“It took some time for me to realize that being my true self as a teacher was exactly what my students needed…We know that students learn more from teachers they trust and with whom they have a strong relationship. And students can’t form strong relationships with teachers if they are not showing up as their true selves.

I always have focused on relationships in my classroom; however, as of late, in reflection on recent discouragements, I am renewed in my dedication to this approach. Knowing our school will be starting the next school year digitally, my mind is already creating lists of ideas and activities to get to know my students. And to introduce them to my true self as well.

One approach I am really excited to resurrect in my classroom is getting to know my students through their writing. To do this, I will offer more invitations for non-academic writing and conferences. I remember my first year of teaching, I had my students journal daily and I responded weekly. The amount of time required was unsustainable, but those were some of the richest moments I’ve had with students. I need to modify that in order to reintroduce it to my practice.

Standards vs strengths.

These two pages hit me h.a.r.d. from chapter 1:

In many ways, while the narrowing of targets due to standards-based teaching is a good thing, it also has led me to a deficit-based approach: what standards are they not meeting and how do I get them there? This reduces students to checklists and prevents me from celebrating and building on their strengths. One of Goldberg’s points in the book is that this deficit-based model arises from our self-help approach: what’s broken and how can I fix it? Not only do I see my students through this lens, but myself. And it results in anxiety and stress and heavy burdens that do not inspire anyone. Especially in a cutthroat, high-stakes environment where the name of the college means everything… I have to create a refuge in my classroom.

Comparison.

I feed on perfection. I like to be the best. Because of this, I often look around to see who is on point and how I can emulate them. This is not a bad thing! However, when I try to replace myself with them… it is. I need to do a better job seeing mentors as role models, not instructional manuals. This will take courage, and yes, sometimes even confrontation. But my students deserve ME as MY best self for them, not an impostor of someone else.

For the first time in a long time, I am bursting with excitement to go back to school. The ideas and plans are keeping me up at night–but in a good way. Creativity is flowing; writing calls to me like a long-lost lover. I feel inspired and reinvigorated. I know this is because I am returning to myself as a teacher.

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.

simplicity and significance: a reflection from the AASSA conference

It’s been a good semester of professional learning and reflection.

First, the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco which I wrote about here. Then the week before last I attended the 2019 AASSA Conference in Santiago, Chile. This year’s theme was all about transforming partnership, but really, the whole thing kinda of blew up what I thought of education and my role in education.

Ya know, no biggie.

I learned lots of stuff about visible thinking and co-teaching and international mindedness and how exciting it is to find a PF Changs and Chilis in a foreign land.

I really learned a lot from Diane Sweeney. She was both a keynote and a workshop leader. Her sessions inspired me to incorporate more choice and DEEP learning in my classrooms. On a philosophic level that I haven’t quite figured out yet, I came away from her session with the deep (and painful) conviction that I overscaffold for my students and rob them of important opportunities to wrestle with the discomfort and messiness of not knowing. She addressed the idea of The Learning Pit…but, ouch, I am so. good. at. building. bridges. over that pit. Still chewing on that…

On a practical level, her sessions also helped to crystallize something I always struggle with… objectives and success criteria in the English classroom. I always feel like reducing the ART of language–which is what I teach, right?–into success criteria is… well…just that: reduction. I mean, come on, that’s easy for math and science, but humanities??? But her session helped me to approach it from a different way: where are concrete gaps my students struggle with, and how can I use those gaps as an entry point into this new approach? One of those gaps I see over and over is vague and generalized “analysis” of the effects of features in text. English teachers knowwwhat-I’mmm-saying: “It gets the reader’s attention..” or “It paints an image in the reader’s mind.” Ugh.

But honestly, my teaching world was rocked with two sessions. I still can’t stop thinking about them.

The first was a preconference I attended with Kevin Bartlett: From Cultures of Compliance to Cultures of Cocreation. I knew I was in the right session when he started with “culture work is identity work” and a deep focus on authenticity and storytelling. If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m all about culture: in my classroom and among adults where I work. It is the. everything.

Two echoes from his session still resonate with me: simplicity and significance. Reduce what we’re doing to focus only on what matters most.

At one point, he asked us in table groups to discuss: “what would you fight to teach?”

Not once did English, or Science, or Math, or History come up.

Instead we talked about wellness, sustainability, communication, patterns.

Yes please. Although, admittedly, this feels much larger than me in terms of systemic application, I can move to concept-based teaching within my class.

This session paired really well with the highlight of the conference for me: Mike Johnston’s sessions about design systems for sustainable education. What’s system thinking? That was my question exactly when walking into the session. It’s all the rage these days, isn’t it? Design thinking. Systems thinking.

But man, I now get it.

And honestly, what made it click for me was this opening question:

What do you want the world to be like in 50 years?

Of course, everyone joked, nervously, by saying: existing. But we also said peaceful, loving, and all those other pipe dream responses. And at once, almost like all of our collective cynicism embodiment spoke, someone commented that we’ve always wanted that, but it’s not happened yet.

His response: we don’t design schools for that.

Mike (Johnston) drop. Ha (insert snort-smirk here).

I’m guilty. When I prepare my lessons, I am mostly thinking about two things: IB and college. And yes, while that is future-thinking, it is so. very. narrow. And ultimately, in 50 years, I don’t care if my students remember what a simile is or if they finished Othello. I care that they know how to manage their time. That they know how to read texts the world as a reflection or criticism of themselves…and respond appropriately. That they see patterns and capitalize on them accordingly. I care that they are good people. That they see beyond themselves to a larger community. That they make a difference in the world. That they love wholly and forgive fiercely and laugh beautifully and breath fully.

I care that they have meaningful strategies to protect their hearts and the hearts of those they love from a sucky world.

How do I teach like that.

Which takes me back to systems thinking. Teaching like that is more than just fixing a problem. First, I have to see the problems fully. I need to examine the causes and effects of the issue with a nature, economic, societal AND well-being lens.

Whoa. That’s a lot.

True statement. But…I am excited at the serendipity in the universe though. Just this week, unrelated to AASSA, the school I serve participated in a Think Tank to reflect on what we’re doing and make changes to do it better. More information is still coming on the results of that, but most participants I’ve talked to have summed it up through these words: time, depth not breadth, people. That sounds like it aligns to my reflection, doesn’t it?

But again, I go back to what’s in my control. My classroom. My instruction. My world of students.

And for them, I’ll fight for simplicity and significance.

I’ll fight for what matters.

*Featured image from http://the-seekers-corner.blogspot.com/2012/01/mirror-of-heart.html

yes, please: my reflection on the learning and the brain conference

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to represent Graded at the Learning and the Brain Conference in San Francisco. The focus this year was on Educating with Empathy. Yes, please.

If one of the goals was to make my brain hurt, it worked. Terms like neurons and amygdala and periaqueductal gray and neuroplasticity and vagus nerve and lizard brain and lions and tigers and bears oh my are just running around my cererbral cortex.

Ouch.

But it was all worth it. Ultimately, I left this conference feeling validated, inspired and concerned.

It’s always a good feeling when you’re listening to the experts telling you what to do and you’re like, “Holllllah! I already do that! And that!” Many times throughout the conference, I felt that way. For example, the bedrock of who I am as a teacher is that students must feel good in my classroom. If they don’t, they won’t learn. I remember reading about this when getting my Masters in language acquisition. But more importantly, I have seen this, day in and day out in my classroom. At this conference, I learned even the brain research supports this idea. If students do not feel comfortable in a classroom, the part of their brain responsible for learning literally shuts. off. (What part of the brain? Yep, good question. That’s in that soupy swirl somewhere in my head, but I’m sure you can Google it.)

Even more validating though is my work with mindfulness in the classroom (See here.) I do it every single day with students to start class. If I don’t immediately begin with it, students are like, “Ms, aren’t we doing a mindful moment?” Sometimes, my students lead it, and that is just breathtakingly beautiful. One of the greatest joys is to see the student survey data: for example, from last year to this year, more students report doing mindfulness on their own outside of the classroom. Ugh one more, yes please!

The brain research is aflame with support of mindfulness practices; mindfulness has been shown to correlate with increases in empathy, health, productivity and memory while decreasing stress. One more time: yes, please! Especially important is the research into metta meditation, or lovingkindness mindfulness, which has been shown to improve the outlook of teenagers toward other humans. All together now, yes please!

But of course, the conference wasn’t only validating, it was also inspiring. I walked out of Douglas Fisher’s session on collaboration with concrete strategies on building effective collaborative models in my classroom. Did you know, his district is one of the few to do well on high-stakes testing (ugh, not everything, but something) even through changing multiple administrations. When thinking about why, he said two things: 1, our kids always know WHY they’re doing what they’re doing and 2, the majority of classroom time is spent on student collaboration.

Here we go again. Yes please.

I also learned some concrete strategies from Jeff Zwiers about how to foster meaningful academic conversation in my classroom. Sometimes in my class, I feel like student conversations are just 52 or so different mic drops, with nobody listening and responding to each other in an authentic way. Zwiers talked about this in terms of building ideas and how you teach students to do that. It was very helpful. I plan on using this with Socratic seminars for sure!

Even with all this validation and inspiration, I cannot stop thinking about the heavy weight of one of the last presentations by Dr. Sara Konrath I attended called “Are Teens and College Students Becoming Less Empathetic?” Wow. Just wow. Without citing a bunch of studies, let me just give the gist of our current teenage situation…

Increasing: narcissism, dismissive attitudes, materialism, volunteering rates (associated with a rise in requirements), mental health problems, GPAs, IQ, ACT scores, self-control (yep, you read that right), ambition (although not attainment), and perfectionism. Aren’t you just exhausted reading that list? I am.

But…wait…here are the declines: security, empathy (both in perspective taking and concern), care for others, the pursuit of meaning in life, socializing with others outside of family, and donations to charities.

These lists are depressing. And I am only reading them.

Can you imagine what it feels like to be a teenager today?

I didn’t leave that session with many answers. Just lots of questions. How can I support such a uniquely pained generation? How can I set them up for success? How can I change the culture so that they change their families so that they change the future?

And it just comes full circle, doesn’t it? Compassion. Mindfulness. Teaching the heart, and not just the mind.

Yes, please.

taking attendance (or practicing presence: part 2)

Present.

I sit this morning in stillness, reading a soul book a soul friend gave me.

Present.

I sit this morning listening to the song of birds. One little fellow is having himself a good ol’ time: a solo act of twirps and tweets and toots among the branches. I practice mindful listening, acting as a conscious port of entry for guest-sounds that come and go.

I don’t attend to this mental door enough.

Just recently on the way to school, I asked Dave a question. Next thing I know he’s saying something vaguely in the background. And by background I mean the screen of my email and the work issues I’m already addressing mentally. I literally asked him a question yet did not wait long enough to hear the answer!

Absent as a wife.

Sometimes I will stare at a student while they talk, even nodding at appropriate moments, and then a minute later realize I have no idea what they have just said. Instead, my mind is on the treadmill of lesson plans and grading and emails and policy frustrations and colleague conversations and…

Absent as a teacher.

Sometimes, a coworker will be talking to me, and I will literally still be typing an email while thinking about a different email I need to send. I sacrifice presence for the sake of productivity.

Absent as a colleague.

More times than I’d like to admit I’ve found myself saying to a friend who is in the middle of a story: “Oh yeah, I do remember you saying something about that.” Vaguely. But just as I didn’t fully attend to the first conversation, I will later only vaguely remember this one as well.

Absent as a friend.

While I was reflecting on this, I went through past pieces I’ve written about mindfulness. When I stumbled upon this one, I sunk under the choking weight of repetition. I literally wrote about the same. exact. thing. in 2014.

I’m even absent as a writer!

But, since mindfulness is a constant, kind returning, I do just that: return.

I take, and retake, attendance.

Present.

In this present moment, I am grateful.

I am grateful for vacation, a break from work, a time when I don’t need consistent attention to my phone (though, do I ever, really?).

I am grateful for our upcoming 6-night silent meditation retreat, a chance to reset.

I am grateful for summer, a time to reconnect and refuel.

Present.

reflections: my 2nd semester overseas

It is a beautiful day today here in Sao Paulo.

As I sit on my balcony and type this, I can hear the vibrating diminuendo of the Brazilian-ice-cream-vender-flute-call. A small corner of the sky hides pale blue dancing with crisp cloud puffs. The majority is overcast, hinting at the impending showers; they come just like they did in Colorado: furious in the afternoon, then gone. With this wet promise comes the cooling caress of a breeze.

The breeze takes me back to the first ones my skin felt on this Brazilian land. I remember writing about how hard some of the transitions were. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by a list of changes: not understanding the language; why can’t I flush toilet paper; why was that meeting so unclear; what is happening here; where are the systems I expected to be in place; do the kiddos like me; do I expect too much; is Dave ok with this adjustment; how do I collaborate with new people; who will be my friends; I want to be with my new great niece; am I good enough to be here; why is the bed wet; can I just find a restaurant to get quick and easy American food. The insecurities and misplacements and disjointings poured down on my cold (didn’t expect that!) skin.

But now, I am months into my second semester abroad. And it feels different. I feel different.

I am different.

I find myself grateful for this dual culture calendar that affords so many holidays. I mean, I was on winter there/summer here break for five weeks! Only to be followed by another week-long break in February. And all of that on top of an extensive summer there/winter break here. I can get used to this!

I am in awe of how many places we’ve experienced and how accessible travel (both in budget and transportation) is down here. Just the other day in a conversation with my students about travel plans, I heard these words come out of my mouth: “Oh I love Buenos Aires!” And then promptly followed by: “OMG, I am a person who says that kind of stuff!”

I feel like I’ve hit my stride in the classroom. I’ve found (and held tight to) colleagues who push me to be better in reflection and practice. I feel like I offer my greatest gift to my students here as I always have: preparing them rigorously while caring for their hearts. Students linger in analytical conversation in my class, but they also laugh uproariously (sorry next door neighbors). Students ask how to grow academically while I ask how they’re really doing. Students have aha’s in the classroom and say hellos in the hall. I have realized: a rich kid needs the same thing as a poor kid; everyone has his/her own trauma. My job doesn’t change from tax bracket to tax bracket or country to country…it is to teach, it is to love.

Professionally, I feel like I’ve prioritized what matters to me: leading by example and not by title. How can I contribute to a positive adult culture? How can I be above reproach in my instruction? How can I be at the top of my game? How can I be reflective and improve? How can I be trustworthy and true to my word?

I’ve made friends and so has Dave. We have more friends than time (partially that’s the innate preservation of my introverted side; I am a homebody at heart). We have several different groups we run with. And yes, though I deeply miss my besties, I don’t feel the aching sense of loneliness anymore.

We speak the language. A bit. But a bit measures a long way in the hearts of warm Brazilians. We feel comfortable in restaurants, in Ubers, in hotels. We still have a long way to go, but a language foundation helps a ton.

Our apartment is more decorated. We’ve hung up treasures from the US, memories of loved ones, and collected moments of our new life.

I guess, in the end, as now I type inside because that impending rain has arrived, I think…

I am home.

And it is beautiful.

 

 

 

 

when the tables are turned: what I learned about my instruction while being a student

This January, we’ve spent three weeks in Rio doing a Portuguese course at a local language school. Now, as I head home to the kiddos that I miss and the job that I love, I cannot help but reflect on what I learned while being an emerging bi(tri)lingual student.

  • The Teacher. When I think back on my educational experience, it is people I remember…not lessons or curriculum. The teacher matters. Humanity matters. The same goes for this experience: I felt much more engaged when I connected with the teacher; I felt much more motivated when I respected the teacher. What created this dynamic? Patient, present, and authentic listening. A remembering of details. Facilitation rather than sage-on-the-stage-look-at-me-showmanship. A sense of humor. Well-timed feedback that corrects but doesn’t interrupt. Intentional lessons that are relevant to my zone of proximal development. Attention to all modes of learning: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. An encouragement of beneficial resources and a caution against resources that in the end undermine learning.
  • The peers. Since learning is never in isolation, peers have a critical influence on achievement as well. As I was learning a second language, I was slow at times to formulate what I wanted to say. Nothing irritated me more than when a peer would jump in to save me, or steal my struggle, or finish my thoughts. I also was highly annoyed by those who dominated air time. Of course, this goes back to the teacher’s role as well. How do I build community? How do I honor struggle? How do I regulate participation? How do I ensure all voices have air time? How do I equally challenge the “know-it-alls” while supporting other levels?
  • The space. It is hard to learn in uncomfortable chairs in a room that doesn’t feel cozy. It is hard to learn when sitting for hours on end. It is hard to learn when I have limited space. Of course, it is not impossible. But as I think about my role as a teacher, I wonder how I can create the space for optimal learning…especially when I don’t have my own classroom.
  • The learner. Ultimately, my experience in Rio learning Portuguese was up to me–the student. I had to practice. I had to do homework. I had to take risks. I had to struggle. I had to make mistakes. I had to ask questions. I had to engage. In my last week when things shifted to a different classroom, a different level, a different teacher, I didn’t engage fully. And though I may criticize the root of this, in the end… it’s on me.

As I begin my second semester teaching abroad, these are the things I’ll keep in mind.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

arrival journal: days five through seven

It’s hard to believe today marks one week we’ve been living in Brazil! The past few days have been a whirlwind of continued professional introductions to the school’s systems as well as more delicious wining and dining.

Wednesday’s orientation provided time for a Portuguese 101 class with one of the school’s most charismatic Brazilian teachers. Her wide smile lights up a room and her warmth makes anyone feel at ease. She taught us through lively action made even sweeter by a table of delicious local candies. I also had my “appointment” with the school’s doctor to make sure I was fit to enter the country; good thing there was no mental exam because I might have failed (“gringa louca”). The PD session focused on feedback which is definitely something that has been on my teacher mind a lot: what will the students’ writing be like here? will I adequately know how to move them? how do I train them to give each other meaningful feedback? That night we ate at a delicious Brazilian restaurant which catered to my vegetarian preferences. For appetizers, more fried cheese on a toothpick (who are they kidding, can I just get a shovel please?!). Then, I had some kind of delicious rice dish with the palm hearts in it, yum! Oh yeah, and tons of wine and conversation with new colleagues.

The most hilarious part about Wednesday is that I came home to a, wait for it, made bed. For all of our friends and family, you also will be laughing at that. While I was at work, Dave actually made our bed (and nobody was coming to see the house and no guests were arriving)! What IS this world we live in?


Thursday’s schedule was built with more autonomous time. The sessions we were together for introduced us to the school’s Google ecosystem and supports for students with special needs [less than 10% of the school’s population (!)]; finally, two things in my wheelhouse. The best part of that latter session was hearing this:

We have to stop loving kids to death.

YES! I have a post unpublished because I can’t figure out how to say it all in the right way, but in essence that is my biggest complaint as of the last year or two. In the US urban school system, we seem to be so afraid of what kids can’t do that we just run right over them with well-intentioned-overcompensation. It infuriates me how little we believe in them.

Anyhoot (sorry to my non-teacher readers about that rant), back to the schedule. Thursday afternoon, we had a personal guide, Jo, show us the ins and outs of apartment living in Brazil, specifically ours. It was crazy helpful. We learned where the garbage goes (we had been piling it in the corner) and that we don’t take the guest elevator with groceries (we take the service elevator) and we saw our parking spot and personal storage space (I guess we don’t have to stock our bins in the fourth bathroom (!) we don’t use anyway) and that you never flush toilet paper in Brazil (!) (well we learned that earlier but I just had to throw it in–no pun intended). Thursday night Dave and I cooked for the first time in our own apartment. We’ve been loving sitting on our porches: the air is crisp and the birds are singing and the sun in shining and the city lights are twinkling.

Friday we spent the morning at the Federal Police Department taking more mug shots (seriously though, I look like a criminal in every one of these legal pictures–every single one. In fact, the one I actually was OK with that the school took, the Brazilian government was not OK with and I had to go take another mug shot, ugh).  We have heard some horror stories about how long this process could take, but we were back in time for the customary Friday lunch of feijoada–a Brazilian dish of stewed beans and meats, though of course they have a vegetarian option at the school. Soon, I’ll do a post about the #outofbounds food down here. We closed the orientation for newbies week in a staff circle of reflections and praise and laughter. Friday night was a more fancy party at the superintendent’s stunning home, complete with catered food, and open bar (by the end of the night, the bartender knew me by my winking smile and empty wine glass; he’d pick up the bottle as soon as he saw me coming) and a live Samba band (is there such thing as a dead Samba band?!). You can bet I was on that dance floor soon enough.

I’ll finish this (long, sorry) post (filled with parenthetical commentary [!]) with some reflections.

  1. One of the hardest parts of a transition to a new school (anywhere) is not knowing the curriculum and thus not being able to plan adequately. This current transition’s woes have been compounded because our entire English department is new, except for the head of the department, who unfortunately has not been able to be here to get us up and running. I like to be planned, a lot. It helps me be a better teacher. So as you can imagine, this component is stressing me out.
  2. The teacher culture here is different. There is a lot of assertive expression of “this is how I’ve done it” or “this is what has worked before.” Everyone seems so confident, so at ease. It is the same experience as going to an AP institute or an IB training. I, of course, feel out of my league. Maybe it’s because I’m not used to working with this abundant level of experienced teachers (years and countries of experience, oh my). But the more and more I’ve been reflecting, the more and more I wonder if it’s actually about my experience in urban education. I am a good teacher. I know that. However, no matter how good I have been in the last decade, it cannot and does not overcome students’ gaps of six or seven or ten years; it cannot and does not overcome the crippling effects of abuse and poverty and racism and systemic oppression; it cannot and does not overcome a pervasive sense of underachievement and hopelessness. When so many needs are in one school, it is nearly impossible to meet them all–no matter how good you are. And so, success is always relative (but no less beautiful). And so, my self-efficacy has never risen to the level of my current colleagues. (I welcome any comments on this, as I am still chewing on it…)
  3. Dave and I feel absolutely ruined by Graded. How can we go to another international school when we’ve been so completely cared for by our first one?! We prayed so much for the best, and we feel it’s been answered, thank you God. The transition has been so delicately planned out with so many of our needs thought through with the help of companies who have just the right expertise with all kinds of staff who have been working tirelessly on our behalf, it is overwhelming in a glorious way. We are grateful.

 

 

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