“I choose love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This quote hangs in my classroom, among others. It needs to be our mantra as a divided country. I will not let the world change me. I will stand up and not by. I will look hate in the face and say, “NO!” to those who attempt to use fear to make me less than who I was created to be or to demoralize my brothers and sisters. There is no color of skin, religion or sexual orientation that can strip away the humanity of our fellow global citizens. It is only man’s weaknesses that can do that – and only if we allow it. Happy birthday, Dr. King. I will do my best to love, knowing it won’t always be easy. Your legacy of peace is more important than ever.
I don’t know what goes on in my brain while I am sleeping. Strange stuff, though, I am sure. I wonder if perhaps I follow Alice through the looking glass, because when I wake up I have the most random ideas floating through my psyche. This morning I was pondering if my students could understand the difference between a defining moment and a pivotal moment.
I sent home report cards, and I hated it. I knew that no matter what I said, they would wear those letters like labels, ala Hester Prinn – some for better, some for worse. Would they read the comments and see that I am tracking their growth? Could they understand in the confines of limited space that I am so proud of them? Could they see grades that were low as a chance for a pivot instead of a definition?
I ask them to have a growth mindset. We use the words persevere and iteration. So I feel a sense of betrayal grading them based on a standards system. I would rather have them work on their digital portfolios of work and reflect on their learning. That would be a lot of work, a huge paradigm shift and a loss of accountability as our culture knows it – and would be outside of the mandate, of course.
Someone out there has made the shift. I am certain of it. Is it you? What did you change, and how did you make it happen?
I was thinking about the word “Professors” yesterday. To profess means to proclaim, announce, state. It speaks to the notion that teachers are the bearers of knowledge and our students are the consumers. That is not the model for the 21st century classroom, so my next thought was that teachers are no longer professors, so to speak.
We are still in the position of transmitting knowledge, but I think we have moved from the role of lecturer to that more closely resembling a docent at a museum. Upon investigating this chain of thought, I came to understand is that a docent in the university versus the museum setting, is a step BELOW the professor, merely a guide who is qualified to teach. Well, then, I think I am living in some parallel universe because Guide is my dream role.
The thrill of teaching does not come in that moment when you have said something enough times for your students to be able to repeat it back to you. The reward comes in the moment when a student begins to ask deeper questions, connects the answers she has discovered and comes to a conclusion – which dawns more questions. You can see it in his eyes as it all unfolds – that sparkle of excitement. When you watch the student apply that discovery to a novel situation, well that is just gold! That requires guidance, not a lecture.
Direct instruction is still needed. Some skills and foundations of knowledge need the scaffolding of direct instruction. But I argue that the skills and factual knowledge are not the end-goal anymore. What I profess to you is that when we have students who can apply their skills to an unfamiliar task or setting, who are flexible in their thinking and continue to ask, “What if . . .?” long after they have left our corridors, we will have guided our students to a life unbounded.
When you know better, you do better – right? I wish it was as simple as that. Change is hard. Being on the front end of change is even harder. We are in the midst of a gigantic pendulum swing in education, and in the process redefining our entire pedagogy. And if that weren’t a challenge enough, we are constantly being reminded that this new educational system is to prepare our students to be successful in a world we cannot envision.
So it is easy to understand why teachers would want to opt out of this swing. It is thrill-ride level to be certain. I want to say I am “all in” because in my heart and mind I AM. That is the easy part. The rough part is living it on the daily, trusting the process, being open to mistakes and risking failure. There is so much at stake here. I teach in a high poverty school. Most of my students are already 2-3 years behind. If I blow this, it is unforgivable, unfixable. On the other hand, that is the very reason I MUST proceed with Project Based Learning, Genius Hour, STEAM challenges, individualized learning.
Now the first semester is over, so it is reflection time – that “Come to Jesus” moment when grades (d0n’t get me started) have to be assigned. How are we doing? Where are we at? CAN THEY READ? The answer is that we are all making progress, and I am trying to provide “standards-based” grades to reflect that. There is definitely frustration in the process. They haven’t done “standardized assignments”. I am still trying to figure out how to walk on both sides of this fence. It is hard to create the neat data tables that governing entities want to see.
My students and their caregivers need to see growth beyond grades, however. That is the true measure. That is what I want my students to focus on, because they have worked so hard. They need to know what their challenges are but also their successes so they can persevere with joy.
I am warning you right now that a brag is coming. My students are the best. There, I said it. A member of our classroom family has been struggling for the past year with severe anxiety and issues with self-worth. Extreme. She cannot see mistakes or failure as a viable option (yet). To be “out” in Four Square or Dodgeball can be the catalyst for anguish. (While she is not adept at either, eagerly joins in on both.) Her peers know this, and each game holds tension. For the purpose of storytelling, I will call her “Sarah”. So here’s her “Rudy” moment:
The game of Dodgeball is down to three people. Sarah is still in. Another student leans into me and says, “When she gets out, Mrs.G., I’m on it. I will go get her when she runs away. I know what to say.” I reply, “She won’t run today.” Now the game is down to two, the ball comes bouncing past and hits Sarah’s ankles. She drops in despair with a piercing wail. The other player steps out the circle. A classmate notices that the only one still “in” is Sarah. She says, “Sarah, I think you won!” Instead of questioning or challenging the notion, her classroom family begins to chant, “Sarah! Sarah!”
At this point, I have gone to her and am holding her against me to keep her safe. The other students come charging in for hugs and high-fives. I turn Sarah around to see and hear and feel the love. She is so shocked and confused, that I take her hand and place in the air for her so she can receive the high-fives. She finally “came to”, embraced me tightly and whispered, “This has never happened to me before.” Then I could see all the tension release from her body.
As I stepped away, the other student who had stepped out of the circle approaches me and says, “I was really still in. I was the winner, but it’s okay. I won’t say anything.” I hug her and say, “You are a winner, and thank you.”
This story isn’t about winning. This story is about working to change one of Sarah’s fundamental truths about herself. Her goal for this year is to feel safe and loved at school. Our classroom family knows she needs this, and we are on a mission to make it happen. And I never had to say a word. Intrinsic Empathy on our 8th day of school. It’s gonna be a great year.
So here it is. The truth is about to be spoken: I fear I may get stuck in survival mode and forget all that I have read and thought and planned. My students will walk in the door on Monday, and I will panic at all that must be accomplished to make up for the five days lost to fire. PANIC! It keeps rushing in.
I want to breathe in peace and envelop my students with it on my exhale. I want to take it all in stride. I want to be the laid-back adult I planned to be. But alas, I am Type A. I am inwardly hysterical at the loss of the miniscule amount of control I thought I had garnered. I will smile and speak slowly and calmly, but the eye-twitch will give me away.
“Snow Days”, I tell myself. Teachers in places that experience weather survive unplanned snow days. BUT NO! Not in the first ten days of school! Not when they are trying to build a culture, establish routines and become a family!
I must find my chill, as my own beloved children would say, so that I can thrive. I need to calm the heck down and be the teacher my students need me to be in order for them to thrive. I will. I will.
Do you panic? What is your mantra that cancels out the cacophony of chaos? Whisper it to me so that I too may become a zen master.
The first week of school had a couple challenges no one expected.
The first day of school was like Christmas downgraded to Groundhog Day. We were in the locale of the Pilot Fire. The sky was orange; the air was smoke-filled; the children were scared; we were locked inside except to go get lunch and use the restroom. And yet, we began as best we could. Big chunks of my plans were cancelled. No problem. They hadn’t read my plans. We got to know each other. We created. We did some GoNoodle so we wouldn’t lose ours. Then we went home. For two days.
Ultimately what that means is that we had the first day of school all over again on Thursday, which was also Back to School Night. Does that make me cry? Nope. I broke out The Marshmallow Challenge I had intended to do on the first day. It was fun and the best tool I have ever used to get to know my students. I saw immediately who my “leaders” were, who was quietly thoughtful, who cooperates naturally and who does not, and so on and so forth. All of that information is very helpful, but that is not the best part.
When time was up on the challenge, we had zero towers standing. Zero. One student said, “We didn’t make it, but we had fun!” But wait, there’s more! We came together to talk about the experience, and create a circle map about group work. Beforehand, we watched the TED talk about the Marshmallow Challenge. Some of it didn’t apply to them, but the main concepts did. Reflecting on the talk and their own experiences, they came up with some ideas. They told me they learned that to be successful they needed to listen to each other, to try every person’s idea with no one trying to be the boss, they needed to persevere (word of the day), and they needed to be kind to each other. I was a happy teacher. We celebrated our failure at towers and success in learning by eating marshmallows, of course.