Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What Makes YOU the Best Teacher in the World?

I was visiting a school the other day to work with a group of teachers during their planning period. As the Team Leader was taking her class of second graders to Specials, she and I introduced ourselves in the hallway. One particularly astute seven-year-old took note of this interaction and as she passed me, she gave me her most rousing endorsement of the teacher. Imagine the following being said by the most earnest of faces, one with a mouth full of newly-grown adult teeth and wide eyes:
She's the best teacher in the WORLD. She's a MAGIC teacher. She used to be a CLOWN!
That's an exact quote; I loved it so much I put it in my phone so I wouldn't forget it. I mentioned it to the teacher when she got back to the room, and she smiled and kind of shrugged it off, admitting shyly that yes, she does know a few magic tricks.  And of course it made me wonder... What is it that makes kids think, "My teacher is the best teacher in the world"?

The fact that the teacher knows magic and at one point worked as a clown does give her some unique skills to use in a class (what child WOULDN'T remember and love a magic trick where the U.S. flag came out whole after a bunch of torn pieces of red, white and blue paper went into a container?). But I think the real "magic" there is the teacher sharing a part of her life with her students and allowing them to see a side of her that might not be readily apparent in normal classroom business. And any teacher, clown or not, can do that by telling a story. Find a story that you can weave into the course of whatever curricular content you're delivering today, and I will bet you that your students will get hooked in by that story, even if the content doesn't wow them at first.

Depending on the age of your students and your own yarn-spinning ability, you might tell stories that make your students say:
He goes to the GROCERY STORE!
She used to be a ROLLER SKATER!
She once walked in a PROTEST MARCH!
She went to FRANCE when she was in college!
 Not all of us are lucky enough to be able to put "clown" on our resume. And yes, you still have to teach content and document student progress and do that RtI stuff. But each of us has something in our non-teaching lives that might capture the imagination of our students in the midst of all those other classroom responsibilities. You never know what it will be about your life that makes students think you're the best teacher in the world. Find that teachable moment. Stop and tell your students a story about something that you have done, or how you felt about it, or what means something to you. And take the time to listen to your students; learn what means something to them. These kinds of exchanges will have a powerful effect on your classroom climate, and you never know how your stories might cause your students to wonder.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Seven Skills Teachers Need, Too

I recently ran across Edudemic's synopsis of seven skills that all students will need for future success. Dr. Tony Wagner identifies a "global achievement gap" that these seven skills might go a long way toward narrowing.

It occurred to me that students aren't the only ones who need these skills. Teachers, principals, and district administrators also need to exercise these essential skills in their daily work, and each is a hallmark of good leadership. Today I am wondering what our schools might look like if more educators demonstrated and cultivated these skills in a very conscious, proactive way.

Critical thinking and problem-solving.  Whether it's trying to help a student remember where he might have put his homework or library book or strategizing how to best help a new student master a particular skill, I would wager that most classroom teachers could hold their own against  any other professional in any field in the area of day-to-day problem-solving. We need to explicitly name these problem-solving strategies every day and show students, other teachers, and members of the community, by our example, what kinds of critical thinking skills we employ on a daily basis.

Collaboration across networks and leading by influence. What could this look like? Curriculum coordinators would always look for the connections to other curricular areas to strengthen and solidify cognitive connections and student learning in all areas. Teachers would actively seek collaborative partnerships with teachers in other grades, other schools, and other districts. Technology-savvy teachers would encourage the "technology timid" teachers in their buildings to try new things. The Instructional Technology department would collaborate with curriculum coordinators, principals, and teachers to better understand what their needs are and provide appropriate technology solutions. All of these connections would require listening to each other and being able to understand the needs and expectations of other stakeholders. Listening is a crucial leadership skill.

Agility and adaptability.  Ask any technology trainer about agility and adaptability, and I'd wager they would tell you a story about a gigantic tech fail where they had to improvise in front of a large audience. (See this post, for example.) But agility and adaptability should be skills that we use not only when in crisis mode. Thinking flexibly and adapting easily to the changes that come at us should be hallmarks of the way a district or department or school functions. This requires some strategic planning and an active commitment to disentangling from a "that's the way we've always done it" mentality.

Initiative and entrepreneurialism. Does your school or district encourage initiative, or are your attempts at showing initiative subtly or expressly thwarted? You may be lucky to have an administration that encourages your innovation, or you may be under the thumb of someone who feels he or she has to call all the shots. Bureaucracy can really get in the way of trying to show initiative. But you can try. Dare to be the one who voices the new idea, steps out of your comfort zone, or tries a different approach to solving a problem. Your small steps toward a new way of thinking could lead to something big.

Effective oral and written communication. Even teachers can mix their modifiers & metaphors, misspell a word, or get in a hurry and neglect to proofread something they dashed off on an email. But I cringe when I get an email from a teacher with an unnecessary apostrophe in a plural or a misuse of the word "too." We are educators, people. This one should NOT be difficult for us. We should show 'em all how it's done.

Accessing and analyzing information. Google has made us all a little lazy; when was the last time you ventured farther than just the top items on the first page of your search results? This is a great place to show our leadership skills. Don't repost that suspicious story going around on Facebook before you check it out (try www.snopes.com, as a good starting point for verifying urban legends). Actively seek out alternative viewpoints to issues, controversial or not. Be a little more open-minded to others' opinions. And always verify your sources. Model these skills actively so that students and teachers have an example of what analyzing information actually looks like.

Curiosity and imagination. Admit it, we can all get in a rut. When you do the same thing day in and day out, it's hard to step into a state of considering how it might be done differently or better.What if we all spent more time imagining how things could be instead of the way they are now? What if we were more curious about how other school districts or even other countries educate their students?  Ask yourself questions like "What if..." "How could we..." "How do other schools make this work..." Dare to wonder about things. I know I do.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tech Failure and Teacher Grace

We had a lot of tech training last week during back-to-school inservice.  Actually what I should say is we TRIED to have a lot of tech training. Sometimes technology Just. Won't. Cooperate. Last week was one of those weeks. [Cue scary horror movie music.] I will spare you the gory details; it was frustrating, humiliating, and demoralizing. But our experience could have been much worse. What made it bearable was the response of the vast majority of the teachers we were attempting to train. Oh my yes, there were some grumblers in the bunch, but overwhelmingly, this is what I was reminded of last week:

Teachers are kind; they know that rough patches happen and encourage you when they do. Numerous teachers gave us an encouraging word or a smile when they left the disaster area training. We heard encouragement along the lines of, "Don't worry!" "These things happen!" "We know you were doing everything you could think to try!"

Teachers aren't the kind of people who are quick to blame. Fault-finding doesn't help. Teachers tend to focus on finding solutions, not griping about the problem.

Teachers roll with the punches and are very flexible. Most teachers just sort of shrugged their shoulders and went on to the next thing on their to-do list.

Teachers are polite. Oh, we know that sometimes you didn't hear an instruction because you were back there checking your email; you sometimes multi-task and get OFF task  And yes, teachers can be a very chatty bunch when you're trying to get their attention. But to our faces, there was very little eye-rolling, except in sympathy.

Teachers are empathetic. Most teachers could imagine how we felt because they might have had a similar experience in front of a group of students (and if they had, it was almost certainly during an observation/evaluation). Their responses were tempered by that empathy.

In short, if I  had to experience a [cue scary horror movie music again] Tech Failure of Gargantuan Proportions, I can't think of a nicer bunch of people to have in the audience. Thank you for your grace, and we'll get those bugs worked out soon, I promise. Have a great year, everyone!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Progress as a YSL (Yoga as a Second Language) Student

I'm hanging in there with the hot yoga thing. I don't love it, and I'm not usually happy about showing up at the class. But this afternoon was my 10th class, the last of the recommended number the studio says you should do before you really make up your mind about it.

Here's what I have observed so far. I am still stiff and awkward. (There is one pose that is called "Awkward Pose." That always makes me laugh because to me they are ALL awkward.) There are two or three poses that I am light years away from being able to do at all, let alone well. But several of the poses are a *tiny* bit easier now than they were a couple of weeks ago. I have more stamina and can do at least some awkward approximation of almost all the poses. I can make it through almost the whole class without feeling like I'm going to throw up. Last night marked the first class where I was able to just pretty much walk out the door at the end without having to sit and rest in the lobby for 10 or 15 minutes after class. And I think I have a lot more energy when I'm not in class.

And of course I find myself wondering how my experiences in yoga class compare to my life in the education world, so here goes.

Every body is different. Duh. The class is really challenging and everyone approaches the challenge with their own bodies. Although it is really hard to pay attention to anyone else, because I'm just so focused on not falling over, I have noticed out of the corner of my eye that poses that are relatively easy for me (relatively)  may be those that another person doesn't even attempt because they are hard for her. But that other person might be able to have pretzel-like flexibility on a pose that is massively difficult for me. This difference in flexibility might have to do with physiology or experiences or past injuries. Limitations, for whatever reason, exist. But each of us can still work with our own limitations and get better. Despite the common "curriculum" we all have to follow, some of us are going to excel in one area but not be nearly as graceful in others. The point is that each of us tries, and each of us gets incrementally better over time in at least some of the postures.

My tiny improvements are what motivate me to come back and to keep trying. The people at the front of the room are there because they've been at it awhile, and it gives those of us who are newer some role models to look to when we're not sure how to do something,  I do not look anything like those people at the front of the room. I would like to say that I don't look anything like those people at the front of the room yet, but that is a qualifier I'm not sure is necessary. I'm not convinced I will ever look like them. But I am getting some satisfaction out of the improvement that I can see in myself. It is motivating when, after just a couple of weeks, I can see a noticeable difference in my flexibility, stamina, and balance - even if those differences are not so noticeable to others. Kids might need your help in recognizing their own progress, but it's learning something new and getting better at something that is often way more motivating than a sticker or a grade.

I want My Teacher, and I don't like substitute teachers. I've been to ten classes and in five of them, I've had the same teacher. This teacher now seems to remember my name and knows that I have a hamstring problem, and she has twice - just twice - given me some individual feedback during a class. She's also given feedback to others in the class, by name. She is now the one that I refer to My Teacher. Maybe even My Favorite Teacher. You have to understand that these classes are identical. We go through 26 poses, in order, and it's clear that all the teachers have to memorize some kind of script, because even the way they all describe each of the poses is word-for-word the same. So you would think that the classes would be identical as well. But there is just something about having that special teacher there, the one who knows you and who knows what your particular strengths & challenges are. Even the tiniest hint of a relationship can matter.

Education 101, I guess: everybody is different, success is motivating, and relationships can make a huge difference. Namaste.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Reflections on New Teacher Technology Training

Every year in our district, like probably every other district in the country, new teachers have to attend a series of inservice classes, some of them at their campus, some in their curricular areas, and some with us in Technology. It's always a challenge for us to figure out how to best train the new teachers, because they won't have their own computer logins for a couple more days. When they can't log in,  it makes it close to impossible to show them our network! We've used a variety of methods in the past, none of which has worked terribly well.

This year we decided to use our TSP (technology super powers) to update our training model, and I have to say, I feel really good about how things went. We created a Google site based on our district's annual theme, with six different modules that teachers worked through on their own. One of my colleagues made a terrific "Scavenger Hunt" worksheet to go along with the Google site, and teachers had to fill in the blanks with pertinent information. We used the thinglink website (my current favorite web tool!) to create some great interactive graphics to show teachers images of things on the network that they couldn't see "in real life" without their network logins. We were also able to create some video tutorials using Screencast-o-matic.

I liked this model a lot and I think it worked well for us. Usually the new teachers are so overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information, their ears are practically bleeding by the end of the last day of training. In this year's model, we gave them a smaller amount of necessary technology information and mixed up the format from one module to the next. The questions on the scavenger hunt were very easy ones so teachers left feeling successful. They have pertinent information written down and a web address to refer back to when they finally do get their logins and can't remember what we said.

The highlight of my day was when one clearly tech-savvy new teacher said, "I came from ##### school district, and they like to promote themselves as being on the cutting edge of technology, but you guys are WAY ahead of them! I've just texted several friends to tell them about your training and that they should move here!" SCORE!

I'm wondering today what other districts do for New Teacher technology training. What problems have you encountered (with logins or otherwise), and how have you solved them? What have been your biggest successes? I hope to hear from you!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Following up on Digital Citizenship Training

I've spent the past couple of days working with principals to strategize on how they can be effective campus leaders in the area of Digital Citizenship. These were two very rewarding days! We have a fabulous set of principals in my district, and they engaged in some wonderful discussion about how to get their teachers, parents, and students on board with a culture of positive norms. Many thanks to Nancy Willard and her wonderful web site Embrace Civility in the Digital Age for the information she has assembled and to Common Sense Media for their outstanding materials.

We started each session discussing the Digital Citizenship Survival Kit, and how principals might use those props in a staff meeting or with students.  Principals then had the opportunity to learn about different resources including the Common Sense Media site at various grade levels, Common Sense's Digital Passport, the Google/YouTube Digital Citizenship Curriculum, and this great guide to teaching students about their digital footprint. They then taught the other class members what they had learned. Before they left, I asked them to make a commitment to carry out a specific objective, and I got great responses! From including Digital Citizenship in their School Improvement Plan to creating campus PLCs and incorporating DC lessons into Advisory or Homeroom classes - I am PUMPED!

We talked about how highways used to be strewn with litter, until an education campaign turned people's attitudes around; now it is completely socially unacceptable to just hurl trash out the window as you're driving along. Same with seat belts - how many of us remember riding along on the back dashboard of our parents' cars, until education and public awareness (and the law) made seat belts mandatory? Now we all buckle up without really thinking about it. ATT's "It Can Wait" campaign will undoubtedly have a very positive effect, in time, on reducing accidents caused by texting and driving. I'm convinced that we adults can have a similar positive impact on students' online behaviors by working to establish, with the active participation of our students, the positive "Cyber Savvy" norms at each school that will allow our kids get to get online safely, manage their digital reputations, understand the indefinite shelf life of a text or tweet, and respond appropriately to cyberbullying.

Sounds like a daunting task, but with the outstanding leaders I worked with yesterday and today, I believe we'll soon be turning out some equally outstanding digital citizens.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Intro to Yoga

Like many people who grew up to be teachers, I was a good student in school. Things came easily to me, I had friends, and I loved pleasing my teachers so I didn't get in trouble. I looked forward to going to school and to getting the affirmation of a good grade. In short, school was easy for me.

By contrast, the yoga class I started several days ago is decidedly NOT. I signed up for a month of Bikram yoga at a reduced rate, and I'm trying to do the recommended 10-classes-in-10-days. If I don't die first. The room is heated to an uncomfortable 100+ degrees, and I am drowning in sweat before we ever get to the first pose. The poses were designed by someone with some real misanthropic tendencies, and the instructors have been cruel taskmasters. I got in trouble for talking because I didn't understand the No Talking rule. They don't know my name, and apparently their job is not to ensure that my self-esteem emerges from the class intact. Things are not, so far, coming easily to me, to put it in the most positive of terms.

The yoga teachers talk us through the poses, and we listen to what they have to say and do the poses based on what we hear and what we see the other class members doing. At certain points during each class, the teacher (very randomly, it seems, but perhaps there is some method to it) goes over to crack the outside door a few minutes. A rush of air coming in from the outside! A refreshing 100-degree breeze! How welcome! Thank you, kind teacher! And then, just as abruptly, she closes the door, also for reasons I can't quite discern. I don't understand the punishment. What exactly is the custom in this place, and is there anything I personally can do to increase the teacher's door-opening behavior? I want to know the secret to success here. Mostly I muddle along, trying to make sense of the teacher's words. I mimic the actions of the other class participants, and hope that things will get better over time.

Not unlike many of your students, I guess, or the teachers that I sometimes see for technology training. Most of them, like me, probably WANT to do what is expected of them. But for whatever reason, they can't quite make their bodies cooperate, at least not at first. How will you push your students this year to do more than they believe they can, without making them sweat too much?
Wishing you unexpected cool breezes, incremental success, and abundant flexibility. Namaste.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing from the Heart

My mother moved to a retirement community a couple of years ago, vacating the home in which she had lived for 60 years. In the process of that move, I inherited from her a few pieces of furniture, including the cedar chest that had sat at the foot of her bed for my entire life. I recently peeked into that chest and found a treasure trove. Nothing of particular value to anyone else, but something of inestimable worth to me: a bundle of love letters from my father to my mother, written faithfully, daily, during the summer of 1947. They have been bundled up with a piece of string and look pretty much undisturbed, so I have to assume that they have not been touched more than once or twice in the past 66 years, if at all.

I never much knew my father, as he died of a brain tumor in 1967. He was 44; I was 6. I am already 9 years older than he ever got to be. As was the custom in 1967, nobody spoke much about a parent's death to the kids; my memory is that he died and we pretty much just acted like he had never existed in the first place.  So you can see, perhaps, why finding this stash of letters has been a balm to me. It's finally an opportunity to get to know a little bit about the big question-mark-where-the-parent-goes.

My father was a wonderful writer, and evidently quite besotted with my mother in 1947; I learned from this evening's round of letters that they had gotten "pinned" a mere four months earlier. My mother was on a 6 week vacation to the Pacific Northwest, where her parents were from, and my father wrote her faithfully of his roommates, his tennis exploits, his classes at SMU law school, and the 104+-degree temperatures. (I will try to remember during these approaching dog days that while Dallas has always been hot in August, people have not always had the luxury of air conditioners.) Every letter ends with how much he misses her - although of course he wants her to continue having a wonderful time. My father, Henry, wrote eloquently, with a delightful facility with the English language and a lovely vocabulary, and in probably 30 letters (I've made it through about half of them so far), there has been only one incidence of his striking out a word to replace it with another. I marvel at his process, knowing how many times I backspace to get a word or phrase even close to "right."

And the woman he was writing to is also someone I never knew. I suppose none of us can quite imagine the people our parents were before life and their children turned them into people they didn't intend to become. But the 19-year-old young lady Henry so longed for bears little resemblance to the woman I have known as my mother and is all but unrecognizable to me. Perhaps that young woman died in 1967, too, in a sense. Pondering this courtship 60-some years after the fact leaves me wondering what my own young adult children would make of similar correspondence, if I had any to show them. More and more, I am awed by this treasure I have discovered, and by the small oasis of family history it represents in an otherwise pretty emotionally arid relational landscape.

Reading my father's letters reminds me again of my six-year-old self and how I was robbed of the opportunity to get to know this man. I wonder how I made it through second grade; I don't remember that year at all. School is starting up again in just a few weeks, and you'll have kids in your class who have been robbed of things, too. Students will come to you from wonderfully functioning homes and from homes where someone is facing serious mental or physical illness or where someone is being actively abused. They will come from homes of monetary plenty and from homes of deep financial insecurity. And they will come to you with varying degrees of learned or innate resilience, or anger, or anxiety, or optimism, or some weird combination of all of the above, and then some. Many will not be equipped to talk to you about trauma they have experienced; many will tell you far more than you really want to know.

My father wrote from his heart, just as I have done here this evening. The things that come from our hearts mean something to us. My hope for anyone reading "these feeble words of ink and page" (as my pastor says each week) is that you will find a way to help your students connect to something deep within their hearts, and that their passions and joys and fears will somehow find a voice in this sometimes scary but nevertheless wonderful world we live in.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Teaching Digital Citizenship to Teachers & Principals

In a couple of weeks I'll  have the opportunity to teach the basics of Digital Citizenship to my school districts' principals, and a couple of weeks after that, I'll be including that topic in a back-to-school session at one of our high schools. Digital Citizenship is an area that I think is incredibly important, and very under-taught. It's one of those topics that everyone seems to think someone else is taking care of, and, in our district at least, I'm not sure it's really addressed much at all except in hidden pockets of unusually tech-savvy teachers. I love the analogies I heard recently about kids & Internet usage: that it is like a busy street, and we don't just build higher fences to keep our kids off the highway; we teach them appropriate behavior and safety skills. Or that it's like a wave pool: we wouldn't throw our kids into the deep end of a churning wave pool without teaching them basic safety skills. Either of those scenarios would be completely irresponsible, and unreasonable, but I often feel like we adults are much too quick to stick our heads in the sand when it comes to teaching appropriate Digital Citizenship skills (kind of like sex ed - but that is a whole different blog topic!)

In a school day that is already packed to the gills with curricular "musts" that teachers have to address every day, I can definitely see how Digital Citizenship (found on no standardized test I'm aware of) would take a back seat to more pressing issues. Nevertheless, I'm really concerned that we are doing our students a terrible disservice by not providing them with more specific information about the permanence of what they post online, tips on managing their digital reputation, appropriate digital etiquette, and handling cyber bullying, just to name a few.

In addition to daily Internet use, our district will have student email for the first time starting in August, and I know many teachers are nervous about how to talk to their students about using that resource appropriately. Student email should provide a great opportunity to start some discussions about being a good Digital and Global Citizen! I've been scouring the Internet for tips on Digital Citizenship, and I've found the nine elements (see this web site if you are not sure yourself), and I have some ideas of my own about what I want to convey. But I would sure love some crowdsourced feedback here. Here is what I'm wondering about today: as either a principal or a teacher, what do you teach your staff/students about Digital Citizenship? What would you like to know more about on this topic? If you were going to a Professional Learning session on Digital Citizenship, what you want to take away from such a session? If you have *taught* Digital Citizenship Professional Learning sessions, what has been the biggest success for you, or the particular topic that generated the most interest? What might you do differently in a future session?

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Wonder of Reading

I had lunch with one of my former middle school students the other day. Back when I was a librarian, I tried hard to get to know as many of the kids in the school as I could, and I grew particularly fond of the ones whose reading appetites I could not keep up with. This young lady, now in college, was one of those; by the time she left 8th grade, I'm convinced she had read every book in the library that I had read. She was one of my "library denizens," the kids who hung around the library before and after school and sometimes at lunch, and I take a certain pride in the fact that I probably introduced the word "denizen" into her already huge vocabulary.

Our catching up time focused on what she was doing in college, what classes she was particularly looking forward to in the fall, and, of course, what we were both reading these days. I feel pretty out of things, library-wise, lately, having been out of the library and doing my tech gig for coming up on seven years. But as I reflected on what I was reading, and what we had mutually read several years ago when she was in middle school, I began to wonder about the strange staying power of certain books.

I remembered (although I don't think my former student did) how much I loved Koly from Gloria Whelan's Homeless Bird, and how a friend of mine and I still reminisce about the very-real-to-us character of Koly; we wonder together how Koly might be getting along these days. I thought about my favorite read-aloud passages from Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and Joseph Bruchac's Skeleton Man and Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen. I haven't had much of an opportunity to recommend a book to a student in almost seven years, but I still delight in that wonderful memory of book-talking  several of my favorites and the kids practically knocking themselves over to get to the book that had piqued their curiosity. There was always such a feeling of satisfaction when I was able to connect ANY book to the right reader, but particularly so for those kids who weren't at all convinced that reading had anything to offer them. I remember the student who could pronounce neither the title nor the author of Vivian Vande Velde's Heir Apparent, but checked it out repeatedly because she loved reading it over and over again; something in that book spoke to her.

I loved my gig as a librarian because when I saw those kids in the hall, I could strike up a conversation about what they were reading, ask them if they'd gotten to the good part yet, give them a knowing smile (but no information) when they asked me what was going to happen next, and then hook them with the next book when they finished the first. I loved that I never had to assess their vocabulary or their comprehension or whether they understood the author's purpose and/or tone; I just got to help them enjoy a book. Which is what real readers do.

I can still remember a certain passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, one I must have read and re-read 10,000 times when I first encountered it when I was fourteen or so. "A man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog." I vividly recall going over that passage over and over, weeping with the beauty and the pathos of it. What makes that line so beautiful to me that I can still quote it forty years later? I can't say. But what I do know is that I felt a huge connection to the people in To Kill a Mockingbird, just as I did to Koly in Homeless Bird and Eva in Lionel Shriver's haunting We Need to Talk About Kevin and the delightfully quirky Biscuit in Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others. Reading fiction, as this article from The Atlantic explains, helps us get into the skin of another person, experience empathy for someone else, and view the world from that perspective.

Which brings me to today's topic, something I've wondered about for quite some time. When students' main reading experiences involve sitting in front of a computer and reading a screen-long passage and then taking a comprehension test on that passage, I wonder how in the world they are going to develop the same love for reading that springs from a deep experience of empathy for a character who becomes real to them over a period of time. I wonder how they will develop that sense of connection to an imaginary, but wholly real, person, perhaps unlike anyone they might have the opportunity to meet in real life, from a character whose only point of existence is to serve as a comprehension checkpoint. I wonder what passage from that computer screen might speak to a child so deeply that she might remember and be able to quote it verbatim the next day, let alone forty years later.

While reading programs that focus on Lexile improvement might raise test scores (and truth be told, I'm not completely convinced about even that), I can't for the life of me see how they do anything toward helping students love the act of reading. Those programs bear no resemblance to how real readers read in real life. At least part of what's missing in those programs is any kind of relationship. There is no relationship between the reader and the characters, and none between the reader and someone else who might have read the same thing and want to discuss it.

I wonder how we can convince teachers of the value in reading simply for reading's sake, when there are so many competing curricular objectives; how we can bring DEAR time back into every classroom, every day, without its feeling like a luxury; how we can take advantage of technology like e-readers and web sites like Scholastic's The Stacks in the very best way: so that students get to read a book - a whole book - and then have time to write or talk about it with someone else. And then when they're done, NOT ask them to take a test on what they just read.

Yes, comprehension and vocabulary and grammar and understanding an author's purpose are important and probably need to be assessed from time to time. Just not every time. Please. Because more than just about anything, I want kids to find at least one book that they connect with so deeply that it still haunts them forty years from now. And I wonder how we're going to make that happen without the conditions that allow them the time and the freedom to just read.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Value of Wondering

In Steve Wheeler's blog post from back in May, he describes a time when he asked a question in class. Years later, his memory is vivid: "[The teacher] looked at me with contempt, told me I had asked a 'stupid question' and then made a big joke out of it. The whole class laughed at me, and I went bright red with embarrassment. I was only 8 years old, but I can still recall how it felt. It taught me a lesson. I never asked another question in class throughout the whole of my school life."

I too, had a complete aversion to asking questions in school, based on something a fifth grade teacher told us time and again: "I have told you everything you need to know. If you ask me a question and it's something you should already know, it means that you weren't paying attention, and you'll have to stay after school." I was one of those kids who were preternaturally afraid of getting in trouble, and earnestly believed whatever my teacher said, so I learned never to raise my hand (unless I had the right answer to something SHE had asked, of course). I was actively taught to not wonder, which for me meant that I learned not to think very deeply. I was in grad school before I learned to ask any kind of meaningful question or to wonder deeply about things. Being afraid to ask a question must be one of those universal fears, akin to public speaking.

Many of the things I deal with on a day to day basis involve the questions for which either I or someone else already has an easy answer: "Don't forget to click the 'Publish' button when you're done." "The handout you need is on our web site - I'll send you the direct link." "I know a great app that could help you with that problem." They're the Google-y kinds of questions, those that have a readily available answer.

But more often, the hard questions take time and effort to address. I try to respect the questioning and wondering process, as Rainer Maria Rilke admonished:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I find that it is true that, given time, I can often wonder myself right on in to a challenging question's solution, particularly if I have the opportunity to wonder along with others and the luxury of time to think. The solution doesn't often come quickly and the ultimate decision is arrived at after many unsuccessful attempts. I don't like the failure part much, but I know the whole being-patient-in-your-heart thing  works.

So I expect to wonder  into answers about how to explain the SAMR ladder and how to provide effective professional learning experiences and how to convince teachers that it would be okay to let kids read something without assessing them. I don't expect those answers to come today (although that would be great!) but I am confident that the answers will make themselves known in time. The important thing is to continue to do the right kind of wondering and questioning. Even if it seems like something I should maybe already know.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Here I begin.

I have resisted blogging for quite some time. I would sit down to write - actually most of the time I would just think about sitting down to write - and I would give up quickly. The loudest voices in my head told me "What do YOU have to say to anyone? Who would care to read anything you wrote?"

For a long time I was a lurker on Twitter, consuming eagerly but never posting anything for the same reasons I've been hesitant to blog. I didn't value my own contributions. The fear of irrelevance seems to be a common one.

I often give the following advice to my friends when I think they are being hard on themselves: if that were someone else other than you saying or feeling the things you are describing, what would your response be? Would you ever be as negative toward someone else as you are to your own sweet self? Of course you wouldn't.

So I'm taking my own advice and giving it a shot. Because while I'm not convinced yet that I have any great words of wisdom to offer anyone, I do wonder about so many things.

I wonder about how we get our kids on board with good Digital Citizenship habits when we adults have been so slow to address these topics head on. I wonder how we are going to get teachers to understand the SAMR tech model when some teachers still struggle with such basic computer skills as file management. I wonder how I can be a more effective leader in my district. I wonder how I can convince people that one doesn't inspire kids to be good readers through the overuse of those razzle-dazzle online reading programs that promote themselves as the best solution to raising test scores - as if test scores say anything about one's true reading life.

So I'm going to start writing about these things, and a few others, because I know that sometimes when one writes, one figures things out in ways that don't happen through any other mechanism. And because maybe someone else is wondering about these things, too.