Sunday, September 29, 2013

Developing the Professional #SAVMP

I was probably in my third year of teaching before I experienced any formal professional development that was both meaningful and relevant. Every year I sat through numerous sessions that involved someone at the district level reading a PowerPoint to a group of teachers, usually in a cramped and ridiculously uncomfortable classroom.  I remember early in my career sitting on a radiator (there were no seats left in the room) in a classroom that was 100 degrees, watching cockroaches run in and out of the slats upon which I was sitting.

Needless to say, I didn't gain much from these sessions. I realized quickly that if I wanted to develop as a teacher I would have to make connections and find outside resources. I had a tight group of English teachers in my first-year cohort and we shared ideas and lessons regularly. I also began to "steal" from teachers that shared their lessons online and had class websites. It was like hitting gold when I could get a glimpse into someone else's classroom.

It wasn't until my fourth year of teaching that I began working at a school that tapped into the talents of its own staff. My current school, Patterson Park Public Charter School, ran almost 100% of our PD's in-house, meaning staff got choices and were empowered to facilitate sessions they felt would be meaningful. We also dedicate one afternoon each week to PD. Students leave early on this day and the staff engage in a wide range of development experiences.

In helping my school think through what professional development could be, and working over the summer with An Estuary, a professional development startup based in Baltimore, I have grown to believe that teachers should be in charge of developing themselves as professionals. In the words of Shelly Blake-Plock, "Teachers should control their development because teachers actually matter." Shelly and his team really started to change my views on what PD could be if we just connected teachers and enabled them to take charge of their own learning in meaningful ways.

The greatest form of development I have found as a professional has been through the connections I have made with other teachers and administrators. Through Twitter, I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to so many different ideas and people, all of which have shaped my own teaching practices. I have learned more from being connected to these people than I have from any class or PD session I have attended. I am exposed to articles, studies, videos, chats, and blogs that serve as the most powerful form of personal and professional development. 

These experiences, and my Professional Learning Network, has changed my teaching, and my overall attitude towards the profession, in powerful ways. Building these relationships allows me to share what I am doing with people that care about me and my students. They cheer us on, help us when we fall, and push our thinking so we can be better tomorrow. 

Recently, I also started playing around with an app called Sanderling. This is an amazing tool for someone like me, a teacher that is constantly doing development activities outside of my school and classroom. I tweet about this stuff, talk to staff, and blog about it, but I have never actually tracked my progress. This tool enables me to create projects and log my activities in a field journal. I can connect with others that are interested in working on the same projects, create lists, and reflect on activities I engage in along the way.

We all benefit, we all learn, and we all grow.

What this really comes down to is the power we all have to develop each other. Our voices are important. Our experiences offer change and hope. Our failures guide us into success when we share with others. Teaching can be lonely and isolating. Sharing opens our doors and breaks down the walls. What we do each day is important and we need to show the world. Teaching together yields better results than teaching alone. On a personal note, it has also helped me build some of the most amazing friendships with people that truly care about me and my students, and that I deeply care about in return. 

Does it get much better than that?

Whose voices do you listen to when crafting development experiences? Are you giving teachers and staff what they need, or are you forcing square pegs into round holes? When designing PD for teachers, are you tapping into the talents of your staff, thus empowering them to share something special about their own work with others? Do you treat your staff as professionals that are smart and talented enough to have autonomy and develop their own professional needs?

When thinking about developing the professionals around you, listen to what they need, both individually and collectively. Empower your staff to share with one another and the world outside of their classrooms. Encourage them to disseminate their own talents and knowledge, as it will lift them up and help them grow.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Matter of the Heart

Photo by KB
Every once in while I am slapped in the face with reality. Something so real and so sobering takes place that I lose my breath for a moment. I become startled and I panic. Sometimes it is these experience that force me to look at myself, or give me the courage to help others grow. Mostly, though, these moments are just uncomfortable until I have time to process them privately.

Recently, I had a few of these moments in quick succession. The first came from a student. Our team organized a rather larger meeting with this student out of both concern and frustration. She struggled through a rather uncomfortable meeting with more adults than could fit at a small conference table. She was shut-down, withdrawn. We questioned whether or not we would ever reach her. At the end of the week, when my students wrote weekly "appreciations" in advisory, she handed this to me on the way out the door.

The second instance came with a very different experience. Over the last month, I have had the privilege of working with two colleagues to build soap-box carts with our kids. These are both science teachers, one of which teaches in our elementary school so I barely knew him, having never found any opportunity to collaborate with him up until this point.  I watched these teachers passionately embrace this project and our students. They worked late into the evenings to prepare these carts for the community race. This was a labor of love, and their energy and enthusiasm was contagious. 

On a Saturday, this teacher invited students, staff, parents (even my mother showed up!), and administrators to his home to celebrate the completion of these carts before the race. We ate, laughed, and cheered our kids on as they pushed these carts down the racecourse hill. This teacher brought a community together and I left feeling so full of joy and happiness.

Both these situations, though drastically different in emotions, reminded me so clearly about the needs of the heart. Whether it be students, parents, or teachers, we all need care, support, and love. We yearn to be part of something larger, something more substantial than our own selves and day-to-day routines. Sometimes our hearts are full and sometimes our hearts are sad, but that doesn't change the need we have to reveal ourselves to those around us, as frightening as this can be.  

In reflecting, I am forced to ask myself how open my heart is to the people around me. How accepting am I when others open up themselves to me? When I am full of sadness or doubt, can I be honest enough to accept help? When I am pushed and challenged to change for the better, can I trust the hearts of others to guide me?

As I walk through this year, I will strive to be a bit kinder, a little more gentle with others' hearts. We are fragile and we are delicate, even when it does not appear so on the outside. When I see sadness I will try to offer compassion; when I see struggle I will try to offer hope. When I see opportunity, I will try to open this offer to our others. 

If we work to protect each other's hearts, we will work to sustain ourselves and others through all matters, big and small. These will be the instances that ultimately build the foundation for change. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Talking With a Tiger (#SAVMP)

(Photo by Richard Shaw)
Over the summer, my colleagues and I engaged in a three-day training course in order to prepare to implement the Tribes Learning Communities into our school's curriculum. All staff members were invited with the goal of having our full staff embrace this unique culture and community focused process.

During these three days we were guided through the process of Tribes by being immersed in the activities and building our own Tribe Communities. The first part of this process is building inclusion, and our staff opened up to one another through a number of guided activities. As we moved into the second and third day, our instructor challenged us with more difficult situations, causing us to move outside of our comfort zones and deal with difficult issues and have tough conversations.

On the third day, we were asked to look around the room at a number of papers taped around the room. Each piece of paper was labeled with one animal. These included a dove, owl, turtle, and tiger. We were asked to reflect upon how we deal with conflict and place ourselves in the animal group that matched our conflict resolution style.

Everyone milled about quietly, as if we had to think hard about where we belonged before finding our stops. I had no questions about my place. I walked to the tiger corner. One other woman joined me in this corner. I felt a little embarrassed to be placing myself in this category. It was, by far, the most aggressive animal option. It was also the most dangerous and unpredictable animal. But I also knew it was exactly the animal that would describe me, and not just in the area of conflict resolution. Trying to justify belonging in any other group would be a lie and everyone would know it.

There is no shame in being a tiger. I am passionately driven to speak my mind and I am not the least bit afraid of conflict. I will happily challenge ideas and engage in tough conversations when others challenge me. I enjoy when my thinking is stretched and my perspective is changed. I actually wish that more people would be willing to have challenging conversations without the fear of being wrong, or at least with the openness to have their own notions altered.

After this experience in training, someone close to me forced me to look at myself a little deeper. He stated, "Being a tiger is fine. The problem is, you're a tiger when you don't need to be."  


Upon reflection, I know that there is a lot of truth in that statement. I also know that in every community, each member brings unique and special qualities to the table. Sometimes, you really need a tiger. In other instances, the wise owl or peaceful dove will drive the best results. We all bring our own fire and, in turn, each member can learn from the others' strengths.

In a school where all members are encouraged to have voice, sometimes the most important thing to do is listen. When your leaders encourage pushback and critical feedback, you must also embrace the compromise and understanding. Tough conversations must be bred from mutual respect and understanding, wise observation, and quiet reflection.

Ultimately, the tiger in me has a powerful place in the conversations and decisions we make as a school community. But truthfully, those conversations are more complex than just pushing back and being critical. At the foundation, we must build trust and respect, so that everyone is encouraged, at some point, to be a tiger or the capacity to be the dove.

When the conversations get tough, where do you fall? Are you able to challenge and stretch the thinking of others through passionate dialogue, or are you more of an observer and wise listener? When dealing with conflict, what qualities do you bring to your team?  What could you learn from the leaders around you about critical conversations? How can we ensure that everyone in our community has a voice and is empowered to use it?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Second Guessing...

This is a year of new experiences. New curriculum. New standards. New vision and mission for our school. And a new mindset for me as a teacher. I spent some time reflecting upon who and what I need to be as a teacher, and why I teach. I gave myself permission to find my passions and indulge in my own loves in life.

I had big plans for my students this year, and I set the bar pretty high for myself.  Even when fear crept in, I believed in my plan and plowed forward thoughtfully and purposefully.

One of the new elements we added this year is Genius Hour.  I introduced it the first week of school. The students were so excited and our room was abuzz with ideas. This was when something confusing happened, something I don't remember it ever happening before. I was bombarded with a question. It was different for each student, but it in essence they were all asking the same thing.

Each student started with, "Can I..." Some couldn't bear to make eye contact. Others
grimaced as they asked. All displayed some emotion that would not be associated with joy, but instead anxiety or fear. They were opening up and they were so scared I would deny them their own ideas and passions.

I met each of these students with affirmative answers, reassurance, excitement, and awe. I loved all their ideas and they needed to know their passions were validated. But it was getting out of control! Every student was second guessing themselves. They lacked confidence in their own interests. All I could do was express my love for their ideas and help them think through the brainstorming process. I watch their eyes and faces light up when I did not deny them, but instead engaged them.

I gave the students a proposal form to help them organize their ideas. They asked if they had to wait until next Friday to get started, and of course I told them they could get started right away. We have time in class on Friday set aside only for Genius Hour, and unfortunately the next Friday I was out of the building and the class had a sub.

As the third Friday rolled around, my heart was so worried they would have forgotten their great ideas and we would have to start from scratch. I quietly asked if anyone wanted to meet with me to discuss their proposal and project ideas. Almost all of the students raised their hands. I actually stood with my mouth hanging open. I was filled with hope and joy that this was working.

I had second guessed myself and this process, but my students pushed forwarded because they did not second guess me. They trusted the process, and therefore took matters into their own hands.

I met with more than half my class, literally howling in excitement over their ideas. Each project was so unique! So special, so thoughtful. So much better than anything I could have planned for them to learn. They had resources, notes, interviews, timelines, and materials. They did not even need me.

Afterwards, while I was privately reflecting on this experience, I remembered a TED talk I had watched over a year ago. Sugata Mitra's talk, The Child-Driven Education, is profound and powerful. 

Mitra hits on two ideas that seem to be deeply related to this experience I am having with my students. He says, "If students have interest, then learning will happen." It was clear to me that my students were engaged in this process because they had interest, not because I told them to get something done.

There is also this notion that when adults step aside, students will rise to the challenge. I had left my students to devise their own plans and ideas. I showed them I trusted them, and I wholeheartedly communicated that I knew, without doubt, their ideas were beautiful and worthy of sharing. They did not second guess me, and they stopped second guessing themselves.

My favorite idea from this talk is by far the role of the grandmother. "Stand behind them and admire them," Mitra's says.  This was all I had to do to ignite the spark in these students. I praised, admired, and nurtured each one of their "Can I..." questions until they naturally morphed them into "I will..." statements.

As Mitra's closes out his talk with the idea of self-organizing systems, I continue to think about how I can create and cultivate this type of learning environment everyday. What is my role, and how to I help grow these amazing learning systems- the ones where I am not in charge but simply a person that nurtures my students and guides them. If it could look and feel the way it did last Friday, then I am willing to do anything to get us there.

As I go into a new week with my students, I will be paying close attention to where they, and I, are seconding guessing our abilities. I will pay close attention to where I can offer admiration, hope, confidence, and love to my students thoughts and ideas. I will help them see their own ideas and passions are powerful and worthy.  Together, we will move to a self-organizing system of learning where all my students can be engaged and thrive.

What great passions and ideas have you squashed down because you seconded guessed yourself? Where did you stop exploring because you let someone else devalue your ideas? In turn, how can you display admiration for the people around you this week? When your students and staff trust you enough to share their ideas, what is your reaction to them? Do you second guess them or do you inspire them?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Roadblocks to Innovation #SAVMP

(Image shared by William M. Ferriter)

As I wind down from the high of the first couple weeks of school starting, I cannot help but feel exhausted.  It has been a string of long days, late nights, and very early mornings. As I try to wrap my head around how I am going to organize my lessons and content for the next week, I cannot help but feel like every idea, every plan I had, just isn't good enough.  In fact, I am so dissatisfied with my current plan of action that I am left feeling a little helpless and lost.

The fact of the matter is that I can no longer bring myself to teach content or lessons in a silo. I feel a huge sense of regret when I think about doing anything in my class that students cannot find relevant, relate to personally, or challenges them to grow and change. Any moment they are not on the edge of their seats with excitement I feel like I am failing them.

Over the last couple weeks I have absolutely loved teaching. I have seen and heard profound and beautiful ideas from my students. They have made me laugh. I have stood observing in complete awe of their kindness and care for one another and towards me.  These last couple weeks have been some of the greatest highlights of my teaching career. I have also loved sharing these lessons and learning moments with my PLN.  If what we are doing is not worth sharing with the world, is it worth even doing at all?

So what's the problem? Why is this week so much harder?

The question I keep going back to is how innovative do I have to be?  What is the expectation? What separates the mediocre from the truly great?

Because, the truth is, innovation is exhausting.

This, of course, does not mean I do not strive for amazing "lessons" that reach and move all students everyday. I push, guide, and support my students to stretch their thinking and abilities to the point of amazing themselves in every discussion and piece of literature and writing. But I have to be okay with the fact that everyday will not be a homerun.

Like most of my students, my biggest roadblock when it comes to innovation and success is fear. At a deeper level, I am the obstacle. I second guess. I lack confidence. I am scared. No amount of external support can really combat these blockades; it has to come from within me. Sometimes this shift from the center of my comfort zone to the unknown is exhilarating. Other times, it is paralyzing.

If I have learned anything during my journey over the last couple of years to transform my teaching, it is that nothing great happens without risk. Risk, usually, is like jumping out of a plane. It is simultaneously the most terrifying and more exciting thing you will ever do. Some days are spent waiting safely on the ground, other days are like looking down from the plane waiting to jump.  If you commit though, if you leap into the unknown, it is unforgetable.

On your innovative journey, what is your greatest roadblock?  What stands in the way of making you and your students truly great?  What qualities do you have, deep inside, that will help unleash innovation in others when there is hesitation or fear?  What qualities do you have, deep inside, that are waiting to be unleashed?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Highlights: A Beginning of the Year Reflection

(Photo by Richard Shaw)

As we finish up our second week of school, I cannot help but be filled with joy and gratitude. Every day has been full of new experiences, joy, support, and laughter.  My students are amazing, creative, and so much fun to teach.  My colleagues have really banded together this year and we are such a strong and supportive team.  The administration, as always, has been the constant foundation of support for us all and has helped ensure the first couple weeks flowed smoothly.  Overall, it is the best beginning of a year I have had as a teacher.

Most of what I did with students over the past two weeks has been completely new to both me as a teacher and them as students.  I did not reuse material from previous years, and the tasks I helped students complete asked them to move outside the normal scope of skill-based learning.

All in all, I found so much success in these activities that I wanted to make sure I shared what was happening in my classroom.  In the spirit of sharing, I believe it is important for all of us as teachers to showcase our classroom.  In any given day I can only be in my classroom with my students.  But, it is more likely than not that you are doing something in your classroom that my students and I can benefit from.  If we don't share than nothing is shared, and we all lose.


Kid President and #Awesomeyear
In the past, I have always taken time at the beginning of year to help students create goals. This year my approach was a little different, as I wanted to make sure that students got a chance to explore what it would take to make this year awesome.  We watch Kid President's Pep Talk and the kids worked in small groups to brainstorm how they could apply some of the quotes from this video to their own life.

After sharing their personal connections, students took time to create their own #awsomeyear quote. The only requirement was it it had to be 140 characters.  As a sat late one night reading what they believed would make this year awesome for them, I was brought to tears by their raw honesty and genuine display of hope for themselves and others.  They provided me inspiration and I wish I could have them all tweeting them out instead of posting them only on my back wall.

Live Wire
Our school has been working hard to adopt the Tribes character education program, and during our staff training we engaged in a community building activity called Live Wire.  I adapted this activity to use with my kids as it was really powerful when I completed it with my colleagues.

Each student received a pipe cleaner and a blank note card.  They were asked to twist, bend, and shape their pipe cleaner into a shape or design that described themselves.  They then used the note card to write a short description of what the pipe cleaner represented about themselves.

Again, I was beside myself with joy as my students so honestly shared themselves with me and the class.  Some were very simple and straightforward, while others reached a depth that greatly surpassed these kids' twelve-years of age.  If you are looking for a powerful and fun way to get to know your students, I would highly recommend this activity!

Digital Footprint
I have a 1:1 Chromebook classroom and this will be the first year that many of my students are engaged in technology integration during instruction.  To help students begin understanding how the concept of a Digital Footprint applies to their activity online, I adapted a lesson from Common Sense Media called "The Trillion Dollar Footprint."

The lesson and activities offered here are amazing in helping students understand what happens when they post information online.  These activities allow students to track what happens when you are not honest online or when you are reckless with your online behavior.  This lesson set the foundation for reflection upon our own work online and how we will craft and control our digital footprints this year.

Innovation Notebooks & Genius Hour
In an effort to cultivate innovative thinking and student voice, our middle schoolers will be engaging in Genius Hour once a week.  This is a huge shift in practice for both teachers and students, and we decided to help students get started by giving them a place to record their ideas.  This was the gift of the innovation notebooks.  We gave these to students and introduced Genius Hour by asking this question:

Students responded with a collective gasp.  They were excited and nervous.  They could not believe this was happening.  I could not believe we had waited so long to fuel this kind of passion.

Weekly Learning Blogs
During the reworking of our middle school humanities curriculum this summer, our staff spent a great deal of time brainstorming how we could make reflective learning a part of our instructional practice. We decided that blogging was a powerful way to encourage reflective thinking, so we developed the Weekly Learning Blogs.

Each week, students will get a chance to write about something they learned during the week. There is no requirement on subject matter or content, the post just has to describe and reflect upon something from the previous week.  Students jumped right in as if they had been doing this forever.  They loved the chance to reflect upon a topic of their choice, and many expressed how it was helpful in thinking about their own strengths and weaknesses.  I also got an opportunity to learn about what they learned in each class, which is a very powerful perspective that we are sometimes shielded from as classroom teachers.  I think this practice will prove to be extremely powerful in the lives of our students' learning throughout the year, as well as an incredible opportunity for us as teachers to assess and reflect upon on our own practices through the help of our students' voices.

Art Carts
This has been, hands-down, the most fun I have had with my students in a long time!  The Art Cart Derby is a local community event that partners with a number of organizations to help students build and race derby carts.  Along with a few other adults in my building, we have been building these carts with a group of fifth and eighth graders.  We have been meeting after school to help the students construct and decorate their carts, which are made from 100% reused and recycled materials.

This week our students got a chance to travel to a local building-consignment shop to gather additional materials and design T-Shirts for race day.  We also got to meet Bud Norris, pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. Our eighth-graders stood in front of adults and other students to explain the building process of their carts and answered questions afterwards. We ended our day with a pizza picnic in the park. It was a beautiful day in every way possible.


Tell me how you really feel...
I don't think this would be a truly reflective post if I did not take a minute to think about where I can improve myself.  I will offer this image from a student, as it probably speaks more honestly than I am capable of when referring to myself.

Final Thoughts

As I move through this year, I will sincerely work to become a better teacher each day through positive actions, hope, and reflective thinking. I will work to see the strengths in all people around me, students and adults alike, and support these people through their weaknesses.  I will open and close every day with an attitude of love, laughter, and joy.  In times of struggle I will be honest with myself and others, and I will ask for help.  In times of accomplishment, I will be humble and show appreciation to those around me, for what we can accomplish together is so much greater than what I can achieve on my own.

As this year unfolds, what practices will you put in place to ensure the success of your students and yourself? How will you make sure that you are sharing the greatness of your students and learning community outside of your classroom? In this new year, how will you work towards and encourage others to achieve the most #awesomeyear yet?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Who Will Know Your Heart?

Photo by KB
The first week of every school is always filled with strong emotions for me.  There is anxiety, excitement, joy, anticipation.  It always seems like there is so much to do to prepare for the students to arrive, yet nothing gets done fast enough or with enough time left in the day to finish the To-Do list. I usually have a few moments of tears and terror during this time, feeling as if I will never be ready when that first bell rings.

Something was different, though. I began to trust myself as an educator, a professional, and just all around adult.  I stopped second guessing every decision I made and walked through the beginning of the year with a confidence I have not experienced in the past.  Instead of melting down in fear, I worked with purpose and accepted that not every single thing would be perfect. 

This year, I did not feel the same anxiety I have felt in the past.  For the most part, I was so excited and every idea that became a reality filled my heart with joy. This was also the first year I was surrounded and supported by my PLN and felt connected to my co-workers after building some stronger relationships through our Tribes character program.

This summer I began the journey of becoming a connected educator. I have met some of the most inspiring people I have ever encountered, engaged in paradigm-altering conversations, and I have felt more kindness and support than I have experienced at any other point in my career.  I have build real relationships and I trust these people as if I was working alongside them in my building every day.  

In a very real sense, they truly know my heart. They have celebrated victories with me, and at the same time they have talked me through some very emotional spots.  I have found friends, mentors, and buddies. I have even connected with people inside my own building because I can share what's happening in my classroom even when they can't be in there with me.  

I decided to open my heart, try something new, and believe in others.  In return, I received the gift of growth and change, not alone, but alongside many others traveling this same path.  We trusted each each, held hands, and took the plunge.  

Trust was there and it was important.  More than that though, I needed faith. Because faith, for me, is always one step ahead of trust.

So as I planned for this first week, I began to focus on who my students would need me to be this year. The beginning of the year is crucial for building a classroom culture of respect and trust.  What would I need to do to make sure that my students would feel safe, inspired, and motivated in my room?  

This is complex, yet so simple at the same time.  I would need to show my students I had faith in them. I would need to show them the belief I had for them was real and unwavering.  I would need to let them know me, so in turn I could get to know them.  

As your students return and emotions run high, how will you engage your students and others around you in a way that builds trusts?  In what ways can you support your students and colleagues by showing you have faith in them and the decisions they make. How much faith will you have in yourself and the people around you this year? Who, this year, will know your heart?